, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Welcome, dear readers, as always.

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

Gandalf is patient, however, only replying:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

A squib is a small firecracker, like these.


Crackers seem to come in sets.


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

“My gentle Puck, come hither.  Thou rememberest

Since once I sat upon a promontory

And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back

Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath

That the rude sea grew civil at her song

And certain stars shot madly from their spheres

To hear the mermaid’s music?”

(Act 2, Scene 1)

In 1575, Queen Elizabeth I


visited Kenilworth Castle,image15kenilworth.jpg

the home of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester,


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


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

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

Thanks, as ever, for reading.




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



Psalters and Psalms


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

As always, dear readers, welcome.

In past posts, we’ve occasionally used images from a very famous medieval manuscript, the Luttrell Psalter.  One fairly recent one, on carts and wagons in Middle-earth, included this, for example—


A medieval psalter is a collection of psalms—religious poems which were traditionally attributed to King David of Israel–


(This is, in fact, from the Westminster Psalter, c.1200)

plus other Christian religious material.  It was clearly a place which offered lots of opportunities for illustrations because a number of them have them, some of them very generous in just how many, like the Utrecht Psalter, from the 9th century, which has an illustration for every psalm.


The Utrecht Psalter has been digitized—here’s a LINK so that you can see all of this wonderful book.

Such books were created in the medieval equivalent of copy-centers, called scriptoria (singular = scriptorium).  For many years, it was said that this was a specific room in a monastery in which teams of monks worked on writing/copying books.  More recently, this view has been challenged (see this LINK for discussion on the subject), but certainly monks made and copied books, as this manuscript illustration of the 12th-century English priest and Latin poet, Lawrence of Durham reminds us.  In fact, this illustration may be more accurate than other medieval illustrations as it shows Lawrence working on a single sheet, which was the standard method.  All sheets were then gathered up and bound into a book—a very different scene from this Spanish medieval illustration, in which at least the monk on the right seems to be writing in a book (the figure on the left looks to be a lay person and may be painting—hence, illustrating).



Illustrated books—especially heavily-illustrated books like the Luttrell Psalter—would have been very costly, and so only the wealthy would have commissioned such a work.  We know the name of the person who commissioned this book because that name and a suggestion of a portrait are at Psalm 109 of the manuscript.


As it says just above the illustration:  “DNS Galfridus Louterrell me fieri fecit” = The Lord Geoffrey Luttrell had me made”.

Sir Geoffrey (1276-1345) was descended from an earlier Sir Geoffrey, who had been a supporter of King John (1166-1216), the dodgy character of the Magna Carta and from the Robin Hood story.



Here’s King John forced to sign the Magna Carta, designed to lessen the king’s power and increase that of the nobles—


which, of course, he didn’t do, since the sign of royal approval in 1215 wasn’t a name, but an official seal.


Sir Geoffrey’s descendant, also Geoffrey, held land, among other places, around Irnham (probably from the Old English for “Georna’s settlement”, Geornaham) in Lincolnshire (yes, when it comes to England, we can never quite escape the Shire, can we?).  Here’s where Lincolnshire is on a map of England.  (It’s interesting that Nottingham, notorious for its sheriff and Prince John in the Robin Hood stories, is only about 40 miles west of Irnham.)


This Sir Geoffrey’s manor house has long disappeared, but we imagine that the area called a manor might have looked something like this.


Its church, St Andrew’s, survives, however, and, though rebuilt in 1858, dates from the 12th century.


Inside, is a monumental brass for Sir Geoffrey’s son, Andrew, (died 1390).


There is no tomb for his father, Sir Geoffrey, but there is what’s called an “Easter Sepulchre”, which was commissioned by him and which may have been based upon such a tomb.


This piece of architecture was used in an elaborate ceremony connected with the celebration of the Christian Easter in the Middle Ages.

Beyond the church, our monument to Sir Geoffrey is the psalter, over whose date there has been lots of scholarly discussion, so we’ll go with the general area of dating, c.1320-1340.  The book is about 14.5 inches by 10.5 (368.3mm x 266.7mm) and contains 309 pages made of vellum (fine calfskin), with illustrations on more than 200 pages.  The text was written by a single scribe, it is thought, but at least five artists were involved in the illustrating—and what illustrations!

In fact, it seems a crazy variety, and, unlike the Utrecht Psalter, the illustrations don’t match the psalms.  Instead, the scenes depicted vary from the high religious—like the three Wise Men/Kings/Magi following the star to Bethlehem, from the New Testament


to all sorts of grotesque creatures


to what we love most, the agricultural and domestic scenes.

These can show a whole town


or mills, both water and wind-drivenimage18mill.jpg

image19windmill.jpgor how the grain is raised and processed to get to the mills




or even controlling the pests who would eat the grain.  (Is this a screencap from the first cat video?)


Here’s a LINK to a selection of images from the British Library, but there are more if you google “Luttrell Psalter”.  See what your favorites might be.

And thanks, as always, for reading!





Let’s add here a LINK to a short film based upon the psalter, which we think you might enjoy.



, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

As always, dear readers, welcome!

One of us is currently teaching The Hobbit and, is always seems to be the case when we are teaching an old friend, we are struck by something new.  In this case, it’s the idea of “what lurks beneath” and where it might come from.

What occurred to us now was that, virtually every time there is trouble for Bilbo and the dwarves, it is strongly linked with caves and hollowed-out places:  trolls who came out of a cave (“Roast Mutton”), goblins who live in caves (“Over Hill and Under Hill”), Gollum (“Riddles in the Dark”), hostile elves (“Flies and Spiders” and “Barrels Out of Bond”), and, of course, Smaug (“On the Doorstep”, “Inside Information”, and “Not At Home”).  Only the wargs, the overgrown spiders, and the men of Lake-town in the Battle of the Five Armies have above-ground origins, as, after all, the other forces—goblins, elves, and even Iron Hills dwarves (we assume), have subterranean dwellings.

We knew that JRRT thought to become a classicist early in his academic career and we can imagine right away that one influence upon him for this underground menace would have been Polyphemus the Cyclops, who, after all, lives in a cave.


Before he read that part of Odysseus’ story in Greek, he might have seen it in Andrew Lang’s 1907 Tales of Troy and Greece—



Tolkien tells us that, as a child, he had read other Lang works and a story in one, The Red Fairy Book (1890), might even have influenced some Middle-earth geography, from “Storia Moria Castle”.



Another childhood favorite (although he appears to have changed his mind later in life) were the fantasy novels of George Macdonald


and his The Princess and the Goblin (1872),


as its title suggests, is full of goblins and their underground world.  These goblins are powerful, but have one fatal flaw—tender feet—which JRRT said that he never believed (see Letters, 178)—although Tolkien’s first published poem was entitled “Goblin Feet” (Oxford Poetry 1915).

Beyond possible childhood reading, there is his career focus, which includes two other potential underground influences.

First, there is Beowulf.  Grendel, the monster in this poem,


lives in a cave at the bottom of a pool with his mother and, in the second part of his monster-slaying, Beowulf has to dive into that pool to deal with her.image9beowulfandmama.jpg

This illustration comes from another Andrew Lang book, The Red Book of Animal Stories (1899).


(The picture of Grendel is by Brian Froud.  We found it on the website of K.T.Katzmann, I Write Monsters.  Here’s a LINK.)

Then, of course, there’s that dragon, against whom Beowulf fights and dies—and which is the direct ancestor of another famous and familiar dragon…


We are told that it lives in an abandoned tumulus—that is, an ancient grave mound, like this one.


(This is, in fact, a famous Neolithic burial at Gavrinis, in Brittany.)

JRRT worked in Middle English, as well as Old English, and here we find one more possible source in his own edition (with E.V. Gordon) of the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.


The Green Knight who challenges King Arthur’s court to a mutual head-chopping contest, is said, in the fourth part of the poem,  to inhabit a “green chapel” and to appear out of a hole when Sir Gawain, who has accepted the challenge and cut off the Green Knight’s head, makes his appearance there to fulfill his half of the contest.


This chapel has sounded like a tumulus to generations of scholars and here’s John Howe’s 2003 illustration, complete with chapel as tumulus (not to mention a very large green man).


Tumuli also make their appearance, of course, in The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo and his party go astray on the Barrow Downs.


We can’t finish this posting without at least suggesting one more source, something even more personal than JRRT’s scholarly work:  his experiences in the Great War.


By the time Tolkien entered the service in France, the Western Front was, basically, a 500-mile trench, from Switzerland to the North Sea.


Much of the entrenching was simply deep, reinforced ditching.


But some—particularly on the German side—could be elaborate, even built with stone or concrete, and set far enough into the ground as to be almost impervious to bombardment.


And we imagine that, with all of that earlier literary work in his mind, JRRT might have faced such defenses wondering whether what was inside them would be Germans


or something much worse.


And did this haunt his later writing as much as the Great War haunted the minds of soldiers all over the world?

Thanks, as ever, for reading!



Legionnaire, But No Disease


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

As always, dear readers, welcome!

Although we do a lot of Tolkien, we set up this blog for adventure in general and, in this posting, we’ve gone to a completely different world—as you’ll see.

When we think of the Sahara, we immediately see:

a. a satellite map, which shows us just how huge it is


b. and camels—although they aren’t native, they’ve been there a long time, having been introduced from Arabia perhaps about 300Ad


c. and, of course, desert warriors


d. and, also, of course, their opponents, the French Foreign Legion


e. or, with a bit of a trim—and in color—


The Foreign Legion were hardly the first foreigners in the service of France.  Medieval French kings had used Genoese crossbowmen.


And the later kings of France had, as part of their household guards, the Garde Suisse.


The Foreign Legion was raised in 1831 and used, at first, during the French conquest of Algeria.



As Algeria was exotic, so were the soldiers there, beginning with the dashing Zouaves, originally locals, but gradually mostly French.


Along with these were the Chasseurs d’Afrique,


who formed the background for what we think is the first North African adventure novel in English, Ouida (Louisa de Ramee)’s Under Two Flags (1867)



which became a film twice, in 1922


And in 1936.


Oddly, the Chasseurs d’Afrique of the novel were replaced, in the 1936 film by the Foreign Legion—perhaps because the script writers thought that the Foreign Legion would have been a more familiar unit to their audience?

If so, it may have been because of P.C. Wren’s 1924 novel, Beau Geste,


which has appeared a number of times on the screen, initially in silent form in 1926,


and again as a “talkie” in 1939


and again in full color in 1966.


The book—and the film’s—popularity—the story was all about noble sacrifice—and exotic desert adventure—did not escape satire.  As early as 1931, two of our favorite early film comedy stars, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy,


appeared in their longest short (37 minutes—but it which sounds like a contradiction in terms), Beau Hunks.


This title is based upon what appears to be a double ethnic slur, Bo- from “Bohemian” + Hunk- from “Hungarian”, so a disparaging reference to a central European—a lower class one, at that.  (It makes us thankful that it appears to have disappeared entirely as a slang term:  in our current world, we don’t need any more ethnic attacks—we have plenty already.)

This was remade in 1939 as Flying Deuces.


This wasn’t the end of such cheerful assaults, however.  In 1967, there was Follow That Camel (from the British comedy series “Carry On…)


and, appropriately, in 1977, came The Last Remake of Beau Geste.


All the same, we still love the old movie, with its last-ditch defense of Fort Zinderneuf,


where, borrowing from Dumas’ The Three Musketeers,



in desperation, the defenders prop up dead legionnaires to make their numbers appear greater than they are.

How could people with a passion for adventure not find that appealing?

Thanks, as ever, for reading

and, as always,












“Dragons, Other”


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

As always, readers, welcome.

One of us is currently teaching a class where our present focus is upon The Hobbit.


At the center of the book is the Lonely Mountain and at the center of that is Smaug.



This got us to thinking about other dragons in our experience, and some of those are not quite of the same breed as the hoard-sitter faced by Bilbo and the dwarves.  That dragon is closely related to the Beowulf variety


which, unlike Smaug, has neither a name nor (it seems) human speech, but it certainly has the same suspicious streak:  when an escaped slave steals a cup from its hoard, it’s almost immediately aware that it’s missing and suspects a human.


And they are both vengeful.  As Smaug devastates Esgaroth, even if he dies for it,



so Beowulf’s dragon scorches the countryside in revenge for the theft.

But what about those other dragons?

First, we thought of Kenneth Grahame’s Dream Days (1898),



a collection of short stories, the next-to-last of which is “The Reluctant Dragon”.


This is the story of a beast the very opposite of Smaug—no hoard, no suspicion, no flaming violence, and, in fact, a poetry lover.  This story was then converted into a Disney cartoon of 1941.


Needless to say, although the core of the plot is the same, what makes the Grahame distinctive is the language.  All of the major characters:  the dragon, the little boy who finds him, and St. George, who is brought in as a dragon-slayer, are thoughtful and articulate late Victorians who would rather discuss literature than do battle—a far cry not only from Beowulf’s encounter, but also from every other earlier depiction we could think of.




The sword in this last one looks like it actually belongs in the hands of the jabberwock-slayer


in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1872).


Here’s a LINK to Dream Days so that you can enjoy the story for yourselves.

Nearly sixty years later, the comic verse writer, Ogden Nash,


produced not a literary dragon, but a timid one in “Custard the Dragon” (1959).


This is a poem in 15 stanzas and is a story about Belinda and her pets, including a dragon, who is taunted by the other pets as being less than brave.  To underline this, the last line in a number of stanzas is a variation upon the first version of the line, “But Custard cried for a nice safe cage”.  (Here’s a LINK to the poem.)

The surprise is that, when a pirate climbs in through the window (this happens all the time here—possibly they escape from dreams?), Custard promptly eats him—and the cries of “Coward!” disappear immediately.

In contrast to the unnamed dragon in “The Reluctant Dragon” and in “Custard the Dragon”, our next dragon is a talker—like Smaug, but also like Smaug, potentially malevolent.  This is Chrysophylax in JRRT’s 1937/1949 Farmer Giles of Ham.  (JRRT is having a quiet joke here—“Chrysophylax” is Ancient Greek for “Goldguard”.)



The artwork is by Pauline Baynes (1922-2008).


If, like us, you’ve loved the Narnia books, then you know her as their original illustrator.


She was also the artist for an early Middle-earth map.


Her 2008 obituary in The Daily Telegraph tells of how they came to work together:

“In 1948 Tolkien was visiting his publishers, George Allen & Unwin, to discuss some disappointing artwork that they had commissioned for his novella Farmer Giles of Ham, when he spotted, lying on a desk, some witty reinterpretations of medieval marginalia from the Luttrell Psalter that greatly appealed to him.  These, it turned out, had been sent to the publishers “on spec”by the then unknown Pauline Baynes.”   (The Daily Telegraph, 8 August, 2008)

JRRT was then so impressed with her work that it appeared both in other later publications and his recommendation led to her being engaged by CS Lewis’ publisher for the Narnia books, as well.  (And here’s a LINK to that obituary, which has more on Tolkien and Baynes, as well as Lewis.)

And the Baynes connection leads us to one further dragon, that in Rumer Godden’s  (1902-1998) 1981 The Dragon of Og, for which Baynes provided the cover art.



It’s not our practice to discuss work we haven’t read, but we’ve just discovered this novel and have already put it on our spring reading list.  The little we know about it comes from a blurb or two, but it looks promising:  this is more of the reluctant dragon, but one who is in danger of being provoked by a new local lord until his wife steps in and cleverly changes the situation.

Before we close, however, we want to look back for a second at the Tolkien/Baynes connection and add two further things.  First off, here’s the first page of JRRT’s graceful letter of thanks and praise to Baynes for her work in illustrating Farmer Giles.


Second, as the Telegraph obituary says, Tolkien was impressed with her versions of the marginalia from the Luttrell Psalter, which is high on our list of favorite medieval manuscripts.


In our next, we want to spend some time looking at that work, thinking about marginalia, and not only there, but also in the work of another favorite illustrator, Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Till then, thanks, as always, for reading.




Many Woven Cloths


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

Not long ago, we visited Meduseld for a look at Grima, the fifth-columnist.  Today, we’re back, but, instead of scrutinizing the staff, we’re examining the décor—

“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”)

By “woven cloth”, we presume that JRRT means a tapestry, a decorative wall-hanging, like these—


In the western Middle Ages and Renaissance, even wealthy walls—like those in castles—could simply be stone and such tapestries could act both to decorate and to act as a barrier between cold wall and (potentially) shivering inhabitants.

For those making such things, the possibilities for using them as story-telling spaces inspired such works as the famous “Hunt of the Unicorn” series of tapestries, now housed in the Cloisters, a museum in New York City.



The description of Eorl makes us think of medieval stag hunt illustrations, where hunters may be seen blowing horns—like this one.



But the fact that he was riding to battle also made us think of wall decorations of a military/historical nature through the centuries, starting with ancient Egypt, where Rameses II (1303-1213BC) had himself depicted on walls in various military actions—



Or the Assyrians, who were not only enthusiastic (gross understatement) about war, but also about depicting themselves engaged in it.


As you can see, although these appear on walls, they are not hangings, but reliefs—that is, shallow carvings.  The Egyptian reliefs could be brightly painted, as is that reconstruction of Rameses and the Nubians, the first of the two Rameses illustrations.  It appears that some of the Assyrian reliefs were also colored—here’s a PDF: BMTRB 3 Verri et al, of an interesting article from the Technical Research Bulletin of the British Museum on the subject.

From colored reliefs, we can jump to colored tiles (called tesserae), with the famous Alexander Mosaic.


This depicts Alexander the Great nearly confronting the Persian king, Darius III, at the Battle of the Issus (333BC) and what amazes us is that this was originally not on a wall, but on a floor, in the so-called “House of the Faun” in Pompeii.


It is believed that this was based upon an early 3rd-century BC painting and, to our eye, it still looks very much like the painting it may have come from (which was, presumably, on a wall, not a floor).

For battle scenes on cloth, we return to the medieval world and something we’ve mentioned before, the so-called “Bayeux Tapestry”.


We say so-called because it’s not really a tapestry—which would have been woven on a loom—but, instead, a giant (230ft/70metres) embroidery.  Here’s a detail so that you can see how an embroidery is made up of stitching on a (in this case) plain linen strip.



This is really an astonishing piece of work—so far as we know, nothing else like it has survived from medieval western Europe:  a massive history of the invasion of England in 1066, including events leading up to it, in 50+ scenes.  We see everything from architecture



to ship-building



to feasting



to battle


at its grainiest


and even includes Halley’s Comet.


JRRT certainly knew about the Bayeux piece—he mentions it in his letters—but the richness of his description doesn’t really match the relative spareness (for all its detail) of that embroidery, so we wonder what he might have had in mind?   Late medieval tapestries would have had the lush look—


This is one of a set of 15th-century tapestries illustrating the Trojan War.  You’ll notice that, like the Bayeux Tapestry 3 centuries earlier, there are labels (tituli, they’re called).  In the case of the Eorl tapestry, it’s Aragorn who provides the explanation, suggesting that there is no caption and Aragorn, being Aragorn, simply knows the story.

For an eye-popping battle scene, however, we would point to the set of 7 tapestries of the Battle of Pavia (1525) woven in Brussels between 1528 and 1531 and now in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples.  Here’s just one example—can you imagine the same having been woven for the assaults on Minas Tirith or Helm’s Deep?  (Here’s a LINK, by the way, to a very detailed article on the subject of these wonderful works.)


But such pieces as these are so elaborate that, for all of their great art, they don’t provide quite the parallel we’re looking for, perhaps because all of the larger ones seem to be filled with people and movement and what JRRT describes is a single figure—almost like a standard, rather than a tapestry—something like this one (although we imagine the original to be facing to the right and the field to be green—oh, and of course he has that horn, but you get the idea).


And we do have this example.  It comes from a site called “Elvenesse”.


It looks more like a religious triptych than a tapestry to us,


but it certainly is going in the right direction.  What do you think, dear readers?

And thanks, as always, for reading!



Lent to a Museum (Mathom.2)


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Welcome, as always, dear readers.

In a posting from January, 2017, we discussed the idea of a “mathom house” at Michel Delving in the Shire.  We know about this place from the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings:

“So, though there was still some store of weapons in the Shire, these were used mostly as trophies, hanging above hearths or on walls, or gathered into the museum at Michel Delving.  The Mathom-house it was called:  for anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom.  Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort.”  (Prologue, The Lord of the Rings)

Rereading this passage this time, we were caught by two things:  “some store of weapons” and “Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms” because, put together, they sound like part of the description of the personal Mathom-house of the original inspirer (we would say) of adventure-writing in English, Sir Walter Scott.


Trained to become a lawyer, Scott had lived for some years in several houses in Edinburgh, for much of his later life at Number 39, North Castle Street–


Although he began his rise to literary fame with the publication of The Lay of the Last Minstrel, a long poem, in 1805,


money began to pour in with his first novel, Waverley, published anonymously, in 1814.


(What a great illustration, by the way—both the first edition and the manuscript.)

Because his legal work required him to have a residence outside Edinburgh, Scott had rented this, at Ashestiel, from 1804-1811.


When the lease was up, he then invested in this rather modest farm house at what was called “Cartley Hole”, which locals called “Clarty Hole”, “clarty” being a Scots word for “mucky”, suggesting that our illustration is prettier than the actual place.


More commercially successful novels and an eventual baronetcy gave Scott grander ideas and he began to rebuild—and rebuild—the house, as well as changing its name to the more dignified “Abbotsford”, as it was near the ruins of the 12th-century Melrose Abbey.


“Bigger” at this time might have meant something Georgian, like this—


but Scott, no doubt influenced by the Gothic ideas of people like Horace Walpole



and his Strawberry Hill


fixed upon a design which, in time, was not only bigger, but Gothic—and Scottish, in the style called “Scottish Baronial”, like this castle at Craigievar, completed in 1626.


In a way, such a choice makes sense:  many of his novels have Scots locations and they made him wealthy enough to build such a place.


This is perhaps the first photographic image of Abbotsford.  It dates from 1844 and is by the English inventor, as far as we currently know, of photography, Henry Fox Talbot.


And here is a modern image.


The outside of Abbotsford is striking enough, but it’s what’s inside which made us think of a Mathom-house.

There is seemingly an endless “store of weapons”.


And then there are all of those other things.  A lock of Napoleon’s hair.



The sword of a 17th-century Scottish hero, the Marquis of Montrose.



The sporran (purse) of that early-18th century Highland legend, Rob Roy MacGregor.


(Scot also believed he had Rob Roy’s musket.)image21rrsmusket.jpg

And even souvenirs he had picked up from the battlefield of Waterloo, which he had visited only a short time after the battle.



Note the hole in the breastplate—and also that the  headgear with it (a czapska) belongs not to the man who would have worn the breastplate, a cuirassier,


but to a French/Polish lancer


With all of these trophies tacked onto every possible surface—including full suits of armor–


we wouldn’t be surprised to see a rather familiar object, ancient, famous, which we are told “was arranged on a stand in the hall (until he lent it to a Museum)”—would you?


Thanks, as ever, for reading.




Abbotsford was opened to visitors within a few months of Scott’s death.  Among those tourists were Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.


They liked the place so much that, when they decided that they needed a little place in the country, Abbotsford would be one of their models.


Long after Albert’s death in 1861, the Queen continued to pay a yearly visit to Balmoral.



If you’d be interested in seeing Abbotsford as an early 20th-century tourist might have seen it, here’s a LINK to Beautiful Britain:  Abbotsford (1912).


I Love a Parade


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“I love a parade, the tramping of feet,

I love every beat I hear of a drum.”

–Koehler/Arlen Rhythmania (1931)


Welcome, dear readers, as always.  In the past, we’ve spent a posting or two discussing military aspects of The Lord of the Rings, from the look of the Rohirrim to the attack on Minas Tirith.  In this posting, we would like to go back one step from that attack to consider what is a rather melancholy moment in the lead up to that assault.

Pippin and his newfound friend, Bergil, have come down to the Great Gate of Minas Tirith.


Here’s the gate from the films.


This immediately reminded us of places like the west door of Lincoln Cathedral.



Or the main door of the cathedral of Palermo.



Because he is now a member of the Guard of the Tower of Gondor, Pippin is allowed to pass through the Gate—and to take Bergil with him out to see and hear the following:

“Beyond the Gate there was a crowd of men along the verge of the road and of the great paved space into which all the ways to Minas Tirith ran.  All eyes were turned southwards, and soon a murmur rose:  ‘There is dust away there!  They are coming!’

Pippin and Bergil edged their way forward to the front of the crowd and waited.  Horns sounded at some distance, and the noise of cheering rolled towards them like a gathering wind.  There was a loud trumpet-blast, and all about them people were shouting.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)

What happens then is a kind of parade.

When we see the defenders of Minas Tirith in the films, they are all uniformly clad.



In our medieval world, this was highly unlikely, the best being that soldiers and servants might wear the colors/crest of the lord they served.  This was called “livery”.  Uniformity in clothing, weapons, and armor would be some time in the future.


What is coming up the road from the south are reinforcements, marching in a long column of units, and those units differ greatly in look.  First are the men of Lossarnach, led by their lord, Forlong:

“Leading the line there came walking a big thick-limbed horse, and on it sat a man of wide shoulders and huge girth, but old and grey-bearded, yet mail-clad and black-helmed and bearing a long heavy spear.  Behind him marched proudly a dusty line of men, well-armed and bearing great battle-axes; grim-faced they were, and shorter and somewhat swarthier than any men Pippin had yet seen in Gondor.”

To us, those axes make the men of Lossarnach sound like the huscarls, the bodyguard of an Anglo-Saxon king, like Harold Godwinson, whom we see depicted on the “Bayeux Tapestry”.



Their leader, Forlong, might be similar in appearance, wearing a type of helmet called a spangenhelm,


and protected by an early form of mail shirt called a hauberk.


After these, we see more units, but with little description—the men of Ringlo Vale “striding on foot”, so infantry of some sort, five hundred bowmen from Morthond, from the Langstrand, “a long line of men of many sorts, hunters and herdsmen and men of little villages, scantily equipped save for the household of Golasgil their lord”.   After them, “a few grim hillmen without a captain”, and “fisher-folk of the Ethir”, all of which we imagine in their workaday clothes of hunters and shepherds and farmers and sailors, as depicted in medieval English and French manuscripts.




Next comes a unit which is perhaps wearing livery:  “Hirluin the Fair of the Green Hills from Pinnath Gelin with three hundreds of gallant green-clad men.”  We aren’t told how they’re armed, but that they may be in livery suggests that they may be better armed than some of the earlier contingents.  (In fact, “gallant green-clad men” makes us think of Robin Hood—perhaps more archers?)


And, finally, folk we’ve discussed before:

“And last and proudest, Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth, kinsman of the Lord, with gilded banners bearing his token of the Ship and the Silver Swan, and a company of knights in full harness riding grey horses; and behind them seven hundreds of men at arms, tall as lords, grey-eyed, dark-haired, singing as they came.”

“knight in full harness”, as we talked about in an earlier post, probably meant, to JRRT, something from Howard Pyle or NC Wyeth, like this—


As for those “men at arms”, if they appear to be “tall as lords”, we assume that they’re on foot, which puzzles us a bit.  “Men at arms” usually means “armored soldiers on horseback” in our world—perhaps with less armor than knights, but still cavalry (unless dismounted, to fight on foot, as the French did at Agincourt in 1415, for example).  We see them, then, as looking like those dismounted cavalry, like these—


However they are armed and clothed, however, they are thought to be too few by those watching and, considering what Mordor eventually sends against them, they would not have been enough, if the brave Rohirrim and Aragorn’s reinforcement from the south hadn’t arrived in time.  What would have happened if they hadn’t?  A subject for very grim fan-fiction!

Thanks, as ever, for reading!





, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Welcome, as always, dear readers.
In 1936, the Nationalist forces were marching to attack the Republican government in Madrid, during the Spanish Civil War.
When interviewed, a Nationalist general is reported to have said that, as four military columns were about to assault the city,
a fifth column of loyalists would join the attack from inside.
This phrase “fifth column”, then, was picked up and began to be used world-wide to mean “traitors/betrayers from within” and was popular during the Second World War era.

When the Nazis attacked Norway in 1940,
and the Allies failed to defend their positions there successfully and were forced to surrender or flee
a member of the small Norwegian fascist party, Vidkun Quisling,
declared himself ruler as the Germans marched in.

In time, the Nazis recognized him as the head of Norway and he even had an audience with Hitler.

This time, a specific “fifth columnist” had not only betrayed his country, but also profited greatly from it and, when we looked at the dates—1936 and 1940—we wondered, as we so often do, if the current events of our world may have colored JRRT’s relation of the events in Middle-earth—even as we hasten to say, as we always do, that this is just a suggestion.
In his first meeting with Aragorn, Eomer is troubled and his veiled comments suggest just the same sort of fifth-columnist action:
“But at this time our chief concern is with Saruman. He has claimed lordship over all this land, and there has been war between us for many months…”
His concern, however, as we see, is for more than border security, as he says of Saruman:
“His spies slip through every net, and his birds of ill omen are abroad in the sky. I do not know how it will all end, and my heart misgives me; for it seems to me that his friends do not all dwell in Isengard. But if you come to the king’s house, you shall see for yourself.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 2, “The Riders of Rohan”)
So, all is not well, not only in Rohan, but in Meduseld itself. When Gandalf and the other survivors of the Fellowship arrive at the gates of Edoras, they are stopped by guards and by a command from Theoden, king of Rohan—or is it? A guard says:
“It is but two nights ago that Wormtongue came to us and said that by the will of Theoden no stranger should pass these gates.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 6, “The King of the Golden Hall”)
“Wormtongue” seems a very odd name—do worms actually have tongues?
But this isn’t a worm, it’s a “worm”—an old term for “dragon”.
And, if Smaug’s speech and its effect upon Bilbo is anything to go by:
“Bilbo was now beginning to feel really uncomfortable. Whenever Smaug’s roving eye, seeking for him in the shadows, flashed across him, he trembled, and an unaccountable desire seized hold of him to rush out and reveal himself and tell all the truth to Smaug. In fact he was in grievous danger of coming under the dragon-spell.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)
then a person having a dragon tongue might be a real threat, as Wormtongue, seated at Theoden’s feet,
inserts himself between Gandalf and Theoden:
“Why indeed should we welcome you, Master Stormcrow? Lathspell I name you, Ill-news; and ill news is an ill guest they say.”
Gandalf immediately resists this and, in a burst of power, breaks the real “spell”—the dragon’s words which Grima Wormtongue has been pouring into Theoden’s ears, as Theoden says to him of Gandalf’s efforts: “If this is witchcraft…it seems to me more wholesome than your whisperings. Your leechcraft [that is, “medical skill”—obviously ironic here] ere long would have had me walking on all fours like a beast.”
[A footnote here—is JRRT making a quiet reference to the fate of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, mentioned in the book of Daniel in the Old Testament? In Chapter 4, the king is driven mad and spends seven years as a grazing animal to prove the power of the Hebrew divinity. Here is William Blake’s (1757-1827) striking depiction of the mad king.]

Certainly something Grima has been doing has affected Theoden, as he is initially described as “a man so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf…” and this shrinking is suddenly reversed when Gandalf strikes Grima down:
“From the king’s hand the black staff fell clattering on the stones. He drew himself up, slowly, as a man that is stiff from long bending over some dull toil. Now tall and straight he stood, and his eyes were blue as he looked into the opening sky.”
For all that Grima has been blocked and Theoden restored, the fifth columnist tries once more. When he is told that he must ride with the king and his warriors to battle, he makes a countersuggestion:
“One who knows your mind and honours your commands should be left in Edoras. Appoint a faithful steward. Let your counsellor Grima keep all things till your return…”
But he gives himself away by finishing that sentence with “and I pray that we may see it, though no wise man will deem it hopeful.”
And Gandalf sees all too clearly what is behind Grima’s proposal—and who is behind it:
“Down, snake!…Down on your belly! How long is it since Saruman bought you? What was the promised price?…”

Although it is said that Grima deserves death for his treachery, he is allowed to flee, and, when we next see him, he is with his true master, acting as his “footman” as Gandalf calls him (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 10, “The Voice of Saruman). And here, as Bilbo’s pity has preserved Gollum for an unseen but vital part in the later story of the Ring, so Gandalf’s mercy to Grima preserves him for two final acts: first, his mistaken use of a palantir as a missile, which puts it into Gandalf’s hands and, ultimately into Aragorn’s, who shakes Sauron’s nerve with it; second, Saruman’s ultimate end:
“[Saruman] kicked Wormtongue in the face as he groveled, and turned and made off. But at that something snapped: suddenly Wormtongue rose up, drawing a hidden knife, and then with a snarl like a dog he sprang on Saruman’s back, jerked his head back, cut his throat, and with a yell ran off down the lane.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)
Grima doesn’t survive this attack, however: “Before Frodo could recover or speak a word, three hobbit-bows twanged and Wormtongue fell dead.”
Merry calls these final acts of violence “the very last end of the War”, but we would suggest a parallel with a specific event in our world: the end of Vidkun Quisling–executed by firing squad in October, 1945, for treason. Could we say that Grima’s death—deserved earlier, but deferred—was also a kind of execution for treason, against Rohan, finally carried out?
And a final thought: after World War 2, Quisling’s name became, for a time, an easy synonym for “fifth columnist/traitor”—could we imagine that, in the Common Speech of Middle-earth after the War of the Ring, the same might have happened to “Grima Wormtongue”?
Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Wains, Carts, and… (2)


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Welcome, as always, to our blog, dear readers.

In our last, we began discussing wheeled transport in The Lord of the Rings.  We began with Gandalf’s cart, mentioned in Chapter 1.


The posting took us from the first traces of wheeled vehicles in western Europe, circa 3600BC (literally traces—just a pair of tracks in the clay)


through chariots


to Roman carts


to their descendants, medieval carts,


which led us back to Gandalf.


Continuing our discussion, we move from carts (2 wheels) to wagons (4 wheels) with the wagon Farmer Maggot uses to carry the hobbits to Bucklebury Ferry:

“I was going to say:  after a bit of supper, I’ll get out a small wagon, and I’ll drive you all to the Ferry.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 4, “A Short Cut to Mushrooms”)

There is no description beyond that, really, but wagons are pretty generic things.  We have a few examples of early (600-500BC) Iron Age wagons—very fancy ones, too—from burials,



as well as this later Viking wagon.


And, in between, we have Roman wagons


and their medieval descendants.


Farmer Maggott’s wagon, would probably have looked something like this (without the arms).


Of course, those Roman wagons were meant for paved Roman roads.


Although some Roman roads remained on the surface and continued to be used, most medieval roads were merely dirt and stones—as JRRT illustrates in that picture of the Hill


and as we see in this picture.


In which case, medieval people relied upon pack horses to transport many of their goods.


(Think of Bill the pony as a modest example.)

An old word for wagon is wain and we would like to end this brief exploration with something about wains and Wainriders.  In Appendix A, we find this:

“The third evil was the invasion of the Wainriders, which sapped the waning strength of Gondor in wars that lasted for almost a hundred years.  The Wainriders were a people, or a confederacy of many peoples, that came from the east; but they were stronger and better armed than any that had appeared before.  They journeyed in great wains, and their chieftains fought in chariots.”

We’ve been puzzled by that combination of “great wains” and “their chieftains fought in chariots”.  The only immediate reference we could think of was to the Iceni, a tribe of ancient Britain, who, led by a female chieftain named Boudica, revolted against Roman occupation in 60-61AD.  At the final battle, where they were defeated by Roman troops, they had parked wagons in a crescent formation to their rear, then advanced with their chariots and infantry against the Romans. (See Cassius Dio, Roman History, LXII.12 for a description of this battle—here’s an easy LINK to that portion of his extensive writing.)


There is a problem here, however.  The Britons were not migratory and their wagons were probably no more than farm wagons and carts, hardly the great wains of JRRT’s description.  If we removed the chariots, another candidate for the Wainriders might be the Mongols, however, who were migratory and traveled in something even more splendid than a wagon—a gur—like this one—


The Mongols certainly came from the east and, in a short time, swallowed up territory from China all the way to eastern Europe.


It is more likely, however, that JRRT combined things–it wouldn’t be the first time he synthesized—so much of his so-called legendarium is a mixture of this and that in brilliant profusion.  So, in the same spirit, we asked ourselves what we thought wains might look like and immediately saw the big wagon which was instrumental in colonizing the western part of the US, the Conestoga.


Great, long lines of these and other wagons, packed with people and supplies, crossed the plains from the 1840s on.


Could we then remove the 19th-century settlers and add Celts and their chariots, say?


What do you think, dear readers?

Thanks, as ever, for reading.