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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

We were practicing our sortes tolkienses (one way of finding a topic—by simply slipping a finger into The Lord of the Rings and opening it at that page—it’s not 100% useful, but sometimes…) and came upon the title of Chapter 2 of Book One of The Fellowship of the Ring:  “The Shadow of the Past”.

In the context of the chapter, we see that that shadow is cast by the history of the Ring itself and also by its maker, Sauron.  That, in turn, set us off on thinking about literary shadows…

In 1885, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)


published a collection of poems.


Poem #19 (if you count the dedication, which is, in fact, a poem) begins:

“I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,

And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.”

[If you would like your own copy of this volume, follow this LINK.]

In fact, in literature, its use is both visible—and invisible.

In psychology, the shadow is metaphorical, being used to symbolize an unconscious part of the personality.  [For more on this, see this LINK.]

And, visibly—but also invisibly—the shadow as physical object can represent something more, as we find in perhaps the first modern literary use of the shadow in Adelbert von Chamisso’s (1781-1838)


novella (a short novel), Peter Schlemihls Wundersame Geschichte (1814), “Peter Schlemihl’s Amazing Story”.


Here’s the first English translation, from 1824.


In the story, the protagonist, Peter Schlemihl, meets a strange man, who can pull anything out of his pocket—and we mean anything.  As Schlemihl reports:

“If my mind was confused, nay terrified, with these proceedings, how was I overpowered when the next-breathed wish brought from his pocket three riding horses.  I tell you, three great and noble steeds, with saddles and appurtenances!  Imagine for a moment, I pray you, three saddled horses from the same pocket which had before produced a pocket-book, a telescope, an ornamented carpet twenty paces long and ten broad, a pleasure-tent of the same size, with bars and iron-work!”

(This is from the 3rd edition (1861) of that first English translation.)

Impressed, Schlemihl is quickly persuaded to make a trade.  The strange man offers him a magic purse, which he calls “Fortunatus’ fortune-bag”.  This object is based on an old story which seems to appear for the first time in 1509 as Ausgabe des Fortunatus (the “Edition/Issue of Fortunatus”?), in which Fortunatus (as you’ll probably guess, the name means “Lucky”) has both a wishing cap and this bag.  Here’s the title page of that first edition.



[If you would like to read one version of the Fortunatus story, here is a link to it from Andrew Lang’s The Grey Fairy Book (1900).]

The purse will always produce ten gold coins when one puts a hand inside, guaranteeing a steady means of wealth for the owner.  In return for this, Schlemihl hands over–his shadow.


This seems an odd trade, but having a magic bag which acts as an endless bank account is certainly no less strange.  Not to be too literal-minded, but beyond the idea that a shadow is a tradable item, it makes us wonder, however:  what could a shadow be made of that it can be removed and collected?

At the beginning of Peter Pan (1904), Peter has lost his shadow and Wendy reattaches it by sewing it on, as if it were simply mobile black cloth and perhaps this is how we might think about it as a physical object, at least for shadow stories.


Although he is pleased with the money, Schlemihl soon realizes the real price he has paid:  when people see that he has no shadow, they avoid him in anything from disgust to horror, which ruins his ability to live anywhere and even to marry the girl he wishes.  The shadow, then, is more than cloth:  it is part of a person’s identity.  If you cast no shadow, you are not quite human.  The real price of the shadow is even higher, however, as Schlemihl learns when the strange man (who is obviously Satan in human form) returns to offer a second bargain:  the Devil will return his shadow in return for his soul.

It’s clear that here Schlemihl has learned his lesson, refusing this offer several times and finally throwing away the “fortune-bag”.  Although he may believe that he is done with magic, magic is not yet done with him, however.  With some of the few coins remaining to him, by accident (or so it seems), he buys a pair of seven-league boots.  (A “league”, classically, is about three miles, so, when he puts them on, each step he takes is at least twenty-one miles.)



This element of the story, in turn, is also based on something in another older story, which appears in Charles Perrault’s (1628-1703)


1697 collection, Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passe,


“Le Petit Poucet” (maybe “Thumblet”?).  In this story, a character steals a pair of these boots from a pursuing ogre, allowing the thief to cover great distances with every stride.

[If you’d like to read this story, here’s a LINK from a 1901 translation.]

With these boots, Schlemihl never regains his shadow, but eventually gains a peaceful existence studying the natural world (which, in fact, von Chamisso did, as well, becoming a well-known naturalist later in life).

[Here’s a LINK to a translation of the story by Michael Haldane.]

More than a century later, the early modern fantasy writer, Lord Dunsany (1878-1957)


reused the idea of buying or trading shadows in his 1926 novel, The Charwoman’s Shadow.


A charwoman, or, simply, “char” (“char” is the same as “chore”, meaning “a task”), in the UK means a kind of cleaning woman.


When it comes to fantasies, the idea that this may be about the shadow not of a princess, or at least a lady in distress, but of an ordinary cleaning lady, is immediately intriguing, but the charwoman isn’t really the main character.  That’s Ramon, the son of an impoverished Spanish nobleman.

To earn money for his sister’s dowry, as well as to find a profession, Ramon apprentices himself to a wizard who deals, among other things, in shadows.  As payment for his learning, Ramon uses his shadow—but, just like Peter Schlemihl before him, quickly comes to regret it.  The charwoman works in the wizard’s house and, as Ramon slowly learns spells, he also learns her story and what has happened to her since she traded away her shadow long before.

In a moment of chivalry (the story takes place in Spain in what’s called the Siglo de Oro, the “Golden Century”—the early 16th to the later 17th centuries–when wealth from the New World made Spain a world power, as well as a leader in the arts), Ramon promises to rescue the Charwoman’s shadow for her.  In the house of a wizard, you can imagine that this won’t be easy, but, eventually, and through ingenuity, he does so, only to discover that—but you should really read the story for yourself.

[Unfortunately, as this book was published in 1926, it’s still under copyright here in the US, so we can’t offer our usual LINK, but we can offer you Peter and Wendy (1911), the novel version of Barrie’s 1904 play—LINK.]

In contrast to shadows which can be traded or lost, what’s interesting to us about Sauron’s shadow is that it’s no more than a suggestion of the appearance of its owner, who, although he casts that shadow over all of Middle-earth, never appears physically in the novel.  The Nazgul—shadowy figures themselves—represent him, but Sauron himself is never more than a shadow and, in fact, when he is eventually destroyed, it’s his shadow we see broken and swept away:

“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”)

That “little shadow”, then, certainly has more uses than the child in Stevenson’s poem will ever see.

Thanks, as ever, for reading.




Helm (2)


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As ever, dear readers, welcome.

In our last, we focused upon the helmets worn by Tolkien and other European and US soldiers in the Great War, the French


the German,


and the British (US troops eventually settled on the British pattern).


The British helmet, we said, has produced the common comment that it looks like it was inspired by the medieval “kettle helm” (the second image being from the 13th-century Maciejowski Bible—but these helmets were clearly so practical that they continued to be used well beyond that time).



“inspired by medieval” is the way we commonly see JRRT’s Middle-earth, and it made us wonder about the kinds of helmets we would meet in The Lord of the Rings.  Unfortunately, if there were a concordance (that is, a book dedicated to listing all the times various words are used within a text, like this concordance for Homer’s Odyssey)


for Tolkien’s work, we are betting that perhaps the only word we would find there would be “helm”, which is generic, unless one adds “great”, which produces a more specific kind of head protection, looking like these, in use from the late 12th to the mid-14th centuries—



With only “helm” to go on, what clues might help us better to visualize what warriors are wearing?

We’ve suggested before that one possible visual resource for JRRT’s images of medieval warfare was the work of the American illustrator, Howard Pyle (1853-1911), in books like The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903), which Tolkien could have read as a boy.


And here’s a well-known illustration—with a knight in a great helm, in fact.


But what did Pyle use for models?

In Pyle’s time, the collection and classification of armor was still at its very beginnings (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York only instituted an Arms and Armor Department in 1912, for example).  We can only assume, then, that he thought “knights = medieval” and so any armor might do.  (If Arthur were real—there’s been argument about this for many years—he would have lived centuries before the medieval period and so would have had neither knights nor the military equipment of later days anyway.  As myth, Arthur can live at any time, of course.  We think of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, where, at one moment, we’re facing Huns and, at the next moment, Vikings.)

If Pyle were one of JRRT’s sources, then, “helm” can easily stand for any kind of protective headgear made of metal and vaguely medieval.  We think that there is more to be said on this, however, and we’ll go into a bit more detail about helmets in The Lord of the Rings in the third part of this little series, but, for now, we want to concentrate on one helmet in particular.

Normally, one thinks of helmets as protection, but, in the novel, we see one also used as a disguise, as Eowyn becomes “Dernhelm” (Old English dirne, “hidden/secret” + helm “head covering/helmet”, so, something like “a helm which hides”?).

What kind of helmet, we asked ourselves, would Eowyn be wearing which would:

  1. keep her identity hidden
  2. blend in with the helmets of other Rohirrim?

We began by looking at modern illustrations of Eowyn but, unfortunately, a cursory survey shows us that almost all modern illustrators appear to have chosen the same scene:  the moment when Eowyn has removed her helmet when facing the Witch King.


So far, we’ve found only a few artists who capture the previous moment:

  1. whose name so far has eluded us, but who shows a rear view of something which looks rather like a French Great War helmet.



  1. the second, another anonymous (to us), again shows Eowyn from behind, but with a style of helmet which appears to owe more to fantasy than to any medieval reality—


and perhaps a little something to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.


  1. the third is Christian Schwager, based in New Zealand.

image16schwager.jpg Her armor is full plate, which, in our world, is later medieval.  As for the helmet, it somewhat resembles a visored sallet, but only vaguely.


And that plume and its placement strike us as problematic, at best.

  1. the last is the well-known fantasy illustrator, Frank Frazetta, and although we enjoy some of his work, this illustration suggests to us that the artist doesn’t appear to have taken the scene–or Eowyn– seriously—or practically.


As we wrote in a post some time ago, the basis of the Rohirrim is Anglo-Saxon, men who wore long mail shirts and conical spangenhelm,


making them look very much like dismounted versions of their Norman opponents, both being shown in the following panel from the Bayeux Tapestry.


A characteristic feature of the spangenhelm is that nasal—the bar which comes down to protect the wearer’s nose.


Potentially, this and the helmet’s brim might shade the eyes and make the face less visible.



So, with the need for disguise and blending-in being crucial, and only “helm” to go on in the text, we asked ourselves what did the two artists who acted as inspiration for Jackson’s films, Alan Lee and John Howe, choose to do? Here’s a picture of the battlefield confrontation by Lee—



Eowyn is, as in the case  of other illustrators, here depicted as having removed her helmet, and, even under magnification, it’s difficult to make much out.  Howe, however, has given us a very detailed picture.


It’s clear, however, that, in choosing to emphasize the dirne in “Dernhelm”, he’s stepped away from the world of knights entirely and into a slightly older world, that of the Vikings, as his helmet more closely resembles the so-called “spectacle helmets”, of which a few examples survive from Viking burials, like this, reconstructed from a discovery at Gjermundbu, in Norway.  (For a very useful view of Viking helmets in general, follow this LINK.)


In turn, Jackson’s designers have followed Lee—


This certainly gives us the “hidden/secret” part of “Dernhelm”, but what about the idea of blending in?  Looking at a group shot of Rohirrim, we find a little surprise.


Instead of looking like Anglo-Saxons, as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, Jackson’s Rohirrim look more like Vikings—and so Eowyn’s helmet blends right in (in fact, in this picture, you can see at least one other warrior with a spectacled helmet), almost as if her helmet and its secrecy requirement have been the basis for all of the warriors of Rohan.

There are lots of other helmets to pursue, however, which we’ll do in our next, so, with thanks to you, dear readers, for reading this, we’ll say



Helm (but not deep)


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Welcome once more, dear readers.

In our last, we talked about Tolkien as a very junior officer in 1916-17.


We discussed much of the detail of his kit, including this very important item, first introduced to the British army on the Western Front in 1916.


The war had begun in 1914, however, and the British soldiers of 1914


although they had shed their red coats for anything but parades,


having learned in many colonial wars that khaki was more practical on campaign,


were still, at heart, ready for the kind of open-battlefield fighting which their ancestors had practiced at Waterloo, a century before.


Infantry might not fight in long solid lines any longer,

Battle of The Alma


And might even seize upon temporary cover,


but battle would still be a sort of stand-up affair with artillery in support


and cavalry ready to charge even enemy artillery,



just as they had at Balaclava, 60 years before.



The British were not alone in imagining modern war as being like this.  Across the Channel, the French were still wearing the same red trousers they had first put on in the 1830s, while discussing attacks made solely with the bayonet.


And the Germans, although more sensibly dressed in grey, could still see themselves as pounding across the battlefield like medieval knights, lances lowered.


Unfortunately for such dreams, weapons technology in 1914 had far outstripped fashion and tradition, with machine guns having firing rates of as much as 600 rounds per minute


and increasingly heavy artillery.



Soldiers on both sides, therefore, instinctively began to seek more shelter.


And more shelter.


What happened next was a kind of military retrograde motion:  what was planned as open-field warfare turned into a giant, 500-mile-long siege.


There had, of course, been sieges forever.  The ancient Neo-Assyrians were fierce proponents.


In 332bc, Alexander the Great, frustrated by the defiance of the city of Tyre, conducted a famous siege across open water to make the Tyrians submit.


Julius Caesar had crushed Celtic power in Gaul in part by besieging their major settlement at Alesia in 52bc.


During the western Middle Ages, sieges were more common than pitched battles.


By the 14th century, however, big siege weapons, like the massive stone-throwing trebuchet,


were fated to be replaced by a new and more effective weapon, the bombard, or cannon.


And, with the expansion of the use of artillery to pound enemy defenses, siege warfare became that much more deadly—as in the relatively short time (53 days) it took for the guns of Mehmet II to knock holes in the ancient but massive walls of Constantinople in 1453.


Over time, the practice of siege craft became an art, as did that of fortification, and, for western armies, the theoretician was Louis XIV’s military engineer, Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707).


Vauban designed fortresses to resist sieges, but he also said that every fortress could be taken in time and proved it by directing methodical attacks upon a number of them.  Step one was to gradually move trenches—and guns—closer and closer to the enemy fortress or town, attempting to make a hole in its walls.  Then, when the hole was judged big enough to provide entry into that town or fortress, infantry would be sent in to try to break through.


Vauban’s method, with its lines of moving trenches and gun emplacements, became the standard and older soldiers in 1914 and those who read military history would have seen that method in the later 19th century, when the Prussians and their allies besieged Paris in late 1870,


or when the Russians laid siege to the Turkish garrison of Plevna in 1877,


or, more recently, when the Japanese besieged the Russians at Port Arthur in 1904-5.


Thus, there was a long tradition for such things for the armies of western Europe to follow in 1914, but the difference lay in those modern weapons, which made the life of besiegers—and, in this war, both sides were really besieging each other simultaneously—that much more dangerous.  If the basis of that tradition was bombardment followed by a successful infantry assault, then the generals of 1914 would follow that pattern.



If the enemy used machine guns and heavy artillery to stop the attackers,




it took some time before those generals realized that old-fashioned methods usually produced huge numbers of casualties


and little success.

Change took time, but one element was to improve soldiers’ chances to survive in the trenches and that meant reviving something from the medieval world, the metal helmet.


The French were the first to replace the soldiers’ kepi


with a metal helmet, in 1915.


(The kepi picture, by the way, isn’t colorized, but is an actual early color photograph, using what was called “autochrome”.)

The Germans replaced their leather helmets, called pickelhalben,




with their own version of a steel helmet, in 1916.


Also, in 1916, the British replaced the service dress cap


with the very piece of kit with which JRRT would have been equipped, and with which we began.


Thanks, as ever, for reading




Holding Place


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Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

Our title is actually a translation of a French compound, lieutenant, which, by itself, is an adjective, but, if you add a definite (le) or indefinite (un) article, you have a noun—and a military rank, a rank which Tolkien held in 1916.  Anyone who knows anything about JRRT is aware of this and has probably seen this photo of a very serious young officer.  In this posting, we’d like to take a closer look at this photo and what it once represented—and, as you’ll see, there’s a great deal!


In 1914, JRRT had made a difficult decision:  to finish his degree and not to join up along with the passionate thousands who did


and, a young man still in civilian dress, to risk the public humiliation of having a young woman—or group of young women—come up to him in the street and offer him a white feather as a marker of his cowardice in not enlisting immediately.


While finishing, he had been a member of the OTC, the Officer Training Corps at Oxford,


which had helped him to gain a (temporary—for the duration of the war) commission as a second lieutenant in the British Army in July, 1915.


The title of second lieutenant was relatively new in 1915, having only been introduced in 1877, as a permanent replacement for the much older title of “ensign” (“cornet” in the cavalry).  Originally, an ensign’s job had been to carry an ensign—that is, a flag—


which could be a very hazardous job, as a flag (a “colour”, in the infantry, a “standard” in the cavalry), was not only a rallying point, but also the equivalent of a very large sign shouting “Shoot this one first!”

By 1915, British units hadn’t carried their colours into battle for about 35 years (the last known instance being at Laing’s Neck, during the First Boer War, in 1881),

so a second lieutenant would be given other roles in the regiment to which he belonged, such as commanding a platoon, a smaller part of a larger company, or in JRRT’s case, being in charge of communications—a subject which we’ve discussed in a previous posting.

Although enlisted men were issued uniforms, equipment, and weapons,


(This wonderfully-detailed illustration is by Mike Chappell, one of our favorite modern illustrators of the British Army.)

officers, as “gentlemen”, were expected to supply everything themselves.


This included not only uniform,


but revolver (this is JRRT’s actual .455 Webley, now in the Imperial War Museum collections)


and sword,


along with the belts on which to carry them,


plus all the other necessary items to join an army on campaign.

Taken altogether, it would have been very expensive for a new graduate, like JRRT, and so the government began issuing a stipend to help “temporary officers” (the Army sometimes had uglier terms for them) to kit themselves out like this.


And we’ve forgotten one essential, by 1916, something no soldier in the front lines would ever have been without—and here’s why.


As people always interested in the medieval, we can say that we’ve seen this pattern before—here are examples from the 13th-century Maciejowski Bible,


where such a thing might have been called a “kettle helm”.

With all of the above in mind, let’s return for a moment to a larger version of that very familiar picture of JRRT in uniform.


First off, you can see that, for this rather formal portrait, although he’s in uniform, he is wearing neither revolver nor sword, but he is wearing the distinctive belting (named after the general who invented the pattern a “Sam Browne”).  As well, if you look at his left cuff, you can see the mark of his second-lieutenancy, what soldiers commonly called a “pip”, but which formally was called a “Bath star”.  One of these on each cuff indicated the rank of second lieutenant.  When Tolkien was promoted, in January, 1918, to First Lieutenant, he would have added a second star.  Here’s a table of rank markers to help you.


If the image were as clear as that of this reenactor, we could see that his uniform bore more than his rank—older regiments, in particular, had special, distinctive markings


Note the badges on this reenactor’s cap and on his collar tabs.  These are the markings of the West Yorkshire Regiment.


Tolkien belonged to the Lancashire Fusiliers, whose badge looked like this:


You’ll see that the outer layer is the image of a flaming bomb or grenade.  This was an old symbol for fusiliers in general in the British Army.  In the 17th-century, soldiers with firearms used mainly matchlock weapons.


This was fired by applying a piece of specially-prepared cord to gunpowder.  If you wanted a guard for your artillery or powder supply, burning cord was the last thing you would want so, instead, such guards were armed with much safer flintlock fusils—hence the term fusilier.


The Lancashire Fusiliers claimed such a unit as ancestors and, as one of the units which had served in the British force which had captured Egypt from the French in 1801 (as the 20th Foot—meaning “infantry regiment”),


they had been entitled to add “Egypt” to their regimental colours and to their badges.


JRRT’s collar tabs and buttons would have been slightly different, displaying the sphinx inside a laurel wreath.



Contemplating this carefully-combed and trimmed young man in his formal uniform,


it might be difficult to imagine him as the man who, in time, could create Mordor and all within it—until you contrast it with images like these, the sorts of things which he would have seen daily in summer and early fall, 1916–


and, suddenly, orcs


are no surprise.


Thanks, as always, for reading and





May we recommend to you this excellent book, if you would like to know more about Tolkien and his experiences, 1914-1918?



Never That Willow


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As always, dear readers, welcome.

In our last post, we had:

  1. begun with a willow tree


  1. moved to the English Renaissance association between willows and melancholy


  1. and, in particular, the play Hamlet (1599-1601), in which a disturbed girl, Ophelia, falls from a willow into a stream and drowns


  1. as well as Desdemona, in Shakespeare’s Othello (1604), who sings a song with “Willow” as a kind of lamenting chorus—just before she’s murdered by her jealous (and misled) husband.


Melancholy comes from an imbalance of the humors, so medieval and Renaissance people thought, from those substances which control the body and its moods.


Too much black bile and you might be plunged into a depression.


(Although his posture suggests that he’s grieving, this young man’s armor says that he’s involved in a medieval sport that certain Tudor noblemen still engaged in, jousting.  Perhaps he just lost?)

As this was considered a serious problem, English Renaissance authors created texts which analyzed the condition, like Timothy Bright, a physician, who published his treatise in 1586,


(if you’d like to see what was believed medically in 1586, here’s a LINK to the work.)

or Robert Burton, a philosopher, who published his in 1621.


One way of dealing with that imbalance was by bleeding—the idea being that, since the humors influenced the blood, by opening up a blood vessel and letting some of the blood pour out it might act as a kind of safety valve.


Another treatment was playing or listening to music.


This therapeutic idea led to the title of one of the first great collections of Renaissance and post-Renaissance lyrics and tunes, Thomas D’Urfey’s, Wit and Mirthe, or Pills to Purge Melancholy (1698-1720).


(The National Library of Scotland has a complete edition of all six volumes of this.  Here’s a LINK, so that you can download them for yourself.)

Melancholy and willows became even more bound together in the early 19th century, when the tree, along with other images, such as urns, was used as a symbol of mourning on tombstones.


Willows, then, have moved from being associated with an Elizabethan ailment to an expression of grief at the death of a loved one, which could certainly bring on melancholy.


For us, willows have another association, however, but one which includes death–and the Elizabethan use of music as a cure.  In The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo and his friends try to cut through the Old Forest to escape the pursuing Nazgul,


they are confused by the hostile wood and eventually brought to the bank of the Withywindle, where Old Man Willow


sings a spell:

“They shut their eyes, and then it seemed that they could almost hear words, cool words, saying something about water and sleep.  They gave themselves up to the spell and fell fast asleep at the foot of the great grey willow.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 6, “The Old Forest”)

This was more than just a sleepy-spell, however, as the tree attempts to drown Frodo, swallows Pippin, and half-swallows Merry (his upper half).

When Sam and Frodo (whom Sam has rescued) threaten the tree with fire, it threatens to kill Merry and Pippin and it looks like a standoff until Frodo simply runs off, shouting for help, and the very odd figure of Tom Bombadil appears.


He has a very distinctive look—

“there appeared above the reeds an old battered hat with a tall crown and a long blue feather stuck to the band…there came into view a man…stumping along with great yellow boots…He had a blue coat and a long brown beard; his eyes were blue and bright, and his face was red as a ripe apple, but creased into a hundred wrinkles of laughter.”

As well, he has distinctive speech and this is where music as cure reappears.  Commonly, Tom’s speech is either actual song or short declarative sentences, which fall into a metrical pattern reminiscent of song:

“What’s the matter here then?  Do you know who I am?  I’m Tom Bombadil.  Tell me what’s your trouble!”

DUM-tee-DUM-tee-DUM-DUM.  DUM-tee-DUM-tee-DUM-DUM.  DUM-DUM-DUM-tee-DUM.  DUM-tee-DUM-tee-DUM-DUM.

He shows no fear of the fearsome willow, breaking off one of its branches and smacking the tree with it while employing this characteristic chanting—

“You let them out again, Old Man Willow!…What be you a-thinking of?  You should not be waking.  Eat earth!  Dig deep!  Drink water!  Go to sleep!  Bombadil is talking!”

Who this figure is, is only ever explained in the vaguest way.  His companion, Goldberry,


says of him simply, “Tom Bombadil is master.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 7, “In the House of Tom Bombadil”)  And, when he receives the Ring from Frodo, even when he puts it on, it has no effect upon him.


As a character in the book, he has proved awkward both for audio adapters and P Jackson and his writers, virtually all of whom have tended, over the years, simply to leave him out of their versions of the story.  This leaves a gap, of course, especially when it comes to Tom’s second rescue of the hobbits, from a barrow-wight (illustration by one of our favorite Tolkien artists, Ted Nasmith),


not only because it’s a wonderfully spooky part of the story, but because Tom ransacks the barrow and gives the hobbits short swords “forged long years ago by Men of Westernesse:  they were foes of the Dark Lord, but they were overcome by the evil king of Carn Dum in the Land of Angmar”” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 8, “Fog on the Barrow-Downs”).   With one of these swords, because of where and when it’s from, Merry is able to wound the chief of the Nazgul who is, in fact, that evil king of Angmar mentioned by Tom Bombadil, allowing Eowyn to finish him off.

Tolkien himself was less than concrete in his explanation of Tom, writing to Naomi Mitchison in April, 1954:

“Tom Bombadil is not an important person—to the narrative.  I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’.  I mean, I do not really write like that:  he is just an invention (who first appeared in the Oxford Magazine about 1933 [1934]), and represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely.” (Letters, 178)

Considering our theme of melancholy and, later, death, associated with willows, as well as the Elizabethan idea that music might cure or at least ameliorate that melancholy, our feeling is that Tom, in the first book of The Lord of the Rings, is a counterbalance, with his singing and chanting, to all of the darkness we’re gradually being shown.  As JRRT says in that same paragraph to Naomi Mitchison:

“I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function.  I might put it this way.  The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side…”

Tom, then, in our view, is not only on the good side, but the antidote to the bad, twice, dealing not only with a living tree, but with a dead and murderous wight.  In both cases, he uses song, making him rather like an Elizabethan cure for the melancholy associated with willows—and, in the 19th-century, willows associated with death–brought to life.  It’s no wonder that, when Sauron is defeated and Middle-earth is beginning to heal, Gandalf tells the hobbits:

“…I am turning aside soon.  I am going to have a long talk with Bombadil:  such a talk as I have not had in all my time.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 7, “Homeward Bound”)

For Gandalf, Tom is the humors back in balance.

As ever, thanks for reading and




For another willow, you might try George Lucas’ fantasy film, Willow (1988).  It has a complicated plot, all about an abducted infant who will fulfill a prophecy, a valiant dwarf, white and black magic, and a rather ragged warrior.  Here’s the LINK for the first trailer (there’s a second, as well).

Although not quite, for us, of the same level as The Princess Bride, being perhaps more like Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal or Time Bandits, like all of those, it has its moments of fun.


Never a Willow


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As always, dear readers, welcome.

In our last posting, although we were talking about 18th-century highwaymen, somehow—we blame the “Dennis Moore” sketch—


we included mention of a willow.



In Anglo-American culture, the willow has long suggested melancholy, perhaps being somehow linked with Psalm 137, which laments the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586BC and the so-called “Babylonian captivity” of the Israelites?

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Under all of that heavy-handed Babylonian mockery is the simple fact that willows are water-lovers, so it would be natural that they would grow near the Euphrates and Tigris, the two major rivers of Babylon.


If the Israelites are no longer singing, we would guess that parking their harps on the willows would be as good a place as any.  Certainly medieval manuscript illustrators had no trouble envisioning it.  This is from the 9th-century Chludov Psaltery (a collection of psalms).


“Melancholy”, medieval/Renaissance people believed,


came from an imbalance of the four “humours” which ran the body and its emotions and people in Shakespeare’s day and beyond appear to have so suffered from it that they consulted a famous and popular text, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up.  That this was a pressing matter for the people of this age is clear from the length of the first edition of 1621—it’s nearly 900 pages—and later editions, which appeared within the next few years, were even longer.  This is the frontispiece of the 1638 edition–


A common treatment for the problem (too much black bile in the system—the “melan-“ part is Greek for “black”—the “-choly” is the “choler”, or bile) was to listen to music, but clearly not all music was soothing, as we see in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599-1601) , where Hamlet’s girlfriend, Ophelia, goes mad and spends her time drifting around the castle singing bits of unhappy songs and handing out flowers with significant meanings.  As music can be involved with melancholy, so, as we said, can willows and the two come together when Ophelia trusts a willow–

“There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.”  (Hamlet, Act IV, Sc 7)


(This is a painting by JE Millais, 1851/2.  That “dead men’s fingers” should have been enough, we think!)

The melancholy continues in Shakspeare’s Othello (1604), Act IV, Scene 3, where the soon-to-be-murdered-by-the-title-character Desdemona sings a sad little song, beginning:

“The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,(45)
Sing willow, willow, willow.
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften’d the stones”—

(It seems like this posting can’t escape including even more trees.  Sycamores are another water-loving tree,


but the emphasis here is upon that willow and we’ll stick with it.)

Perhaps it’s the slumping shape, which might suggest despair, or at least grief, but the willow began to appear on tombstones here in the US at the beginning of the 19th century, sometimes by itself,


sometimes shading other symbols of mourning, like an urn.


It could appear in other funerary art, as well—as in pictures


and even as part of another funerary—and life—custom of the time, the giving/exchanging of locks of hair.  In this mourning brooch, one can see a willow made from such a lock.


With such a grim history, it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that a willow familiar to readers of The Lord of the Rings might have a sinister purpose.


He’s not alone in being hostile foliage.  As Merry tells Frodo, Sam, and Pippin:

“But the Forest is queer.  Everything in it is very much more alive, more aware of what is going on, so to speak, than things are in the Shire.  And the trees do not like strangers.  They watch you.  They are usually content merely to watch you, as long as daylight lasts, and don’t do much.  Occasionally the most unfriendly ones may drop a branch, or stick a root out, or grasp at you with a long trailer.  But at night things can be most alarming…  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 6, “The Old Forest”)

Their journey through the Forest, intended to put some space between them and the danger of the Nazgul, provides its own dangers, as the place seems to move about of its own accord, confusing travelers—or worse:

“Suddenly Frodo himself felt sleep overwhelming him.  His head swam.  There now seemed hardly a sound in the air.  The flies had stopped buzzing.  Only a gentle noise on the edge of hearing, a soft fluttering as of a song half whispered, seemed to stir in the boughs above.  He lifted his heavy eyes and saw leaning over him a huge willow-tree, old and hoary.  Enormous it looked, its sprawling branches going up like reaching arms with many long-fingered hands, its knotted and twisted trunk gaping in wide fissures that creaked faintly as the boughs moved…”

We are a far cry from Monty Python here.  The willow then tries to drown Frodo, swallows Pippin completely, and the upper half of Merry, and, were it not for the appearance of perhaps the oddest character in The Lord of the Rings, it is difficult to imagine what would have happened next.


What will happen in our next posting, however, you will see next week (hint:  the posting is entitled, “Never This Willow”).  In the meantime,

Thanks, as always, for reading and




To treat any melancholy you might feel from reading this posting, please see below for a very merry Elizabethan song ably performed by the Baltimore Consort.



And here’s a LINK to a set of lyrics c. 1590 so that you can follow along.  You’ll notice that it includes melancholy, trees, and music, all in one.



Further Crime


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After our last posting, where we were in southeast England with 18th-century smugglers, we’ve found ourselves traveling inland, but still on the same theme:  interesting evil-doers.

Dr. Syn, aka “The Scarecrow”


was a fictional character created in 1915 by Russell Thorndike,


but based upon actual smuggling gangs who worked along the coast of the area called Kent.



Such people robbed the government of revenue, removing goods which would have been taxed, sometimes heavily, at legitimate ports of entry.  Our next 17th-18th-century evil-doers use the more personal approach, behaving in the tradition of Robin Hood,


the difference being that, rather robbing the rich and giving to the poor, highwaymen robbed from the rich—or almost anyone they caught on the public roads—and kept it.  This could mean an individual on foot,


or on horseback,


or in a carriage,


or in a coach.


These men could become quite well-known in life, like Dick Turpin, who had biographies written about him.



Turpin, and a few others, like Claude Duval,


even entered contemporary folklore.  This painting, by William Powell Frith (1819-1909), depicts a piece of what appears to be that very folklore.  The story goes that, once, when he had stopped a coach, Duval offered to reduce the amount taken from the gentleman inside if his pretty wife would dance with him.  She did so, and Duval did as he offered.

Such behavior, real or no, may have impressed ordinary people, but the law saw highwaymen as a menace and one to be dealt with severely.  Any one caught was tried and quickly sentenced to be hanged.  If taken in the London area, the execution was done at a standard execution place, Tyburn.


This engraving is by William Hogarth (1697-1764), a famous artist and caricaturist of the first half of the 18th-century.  It’s from a series entitled, “Industry and Idleness” (1747) and you can see who is about to suffer from the sheet of paper held in the hand of the woman in the foreground.  It reads:  “The Last Dying Speech and Confession of the Idle [Apprentice]”.

People in other times, from Roman gladiatorial combat to Elizabethan bear-baiting, had very different ideas from most contemporary folk when it came to open violence as spectacle.  Here, we see, as was common in England at this time, a huge crowd all gathered to witness the Idle Apprentice’s death.  (Public executions were only abolished in Great Britain in 1868.)

One can see part of the entertainment in what that woman is holding.  A common souvenir of the event was a printed broadsheet, with a title like “Trial, Last Words, and True Confession of…”, which purported to be the dying statement of the person about to be executed.


Often these began with a generic woodcut of a hanging and might also contain other illustrations, like the one below, from 1835.


Once the execution was over, the punishment was not.  The executed person’s corpse (we think that this was only males) might be displayed publicly in a kind of iron cage on a frame, called a gibbet, sometimes till the body had crumbled away.


Or, worse, it might be turned over to a medical school and used for instructional purposes.


(This is from another Hogarth series, “The Four Stages of Cruelty”, 1751.  The skeleton in the background, on the right, is labeled, “MacLeane”, who was a highwayman hanged in 1750.)

We had first learned about highwaymen from a famous poem, “The Highwayman”, by Alfred Noyes (1880-1958).


The Highwayman

Here’s a LINK so that you can read it for yourself.

But, because we can’t end on a grim note, there’s one more highwayman we want to mention.  This is Monty Python’s John Cleese, playing the highwayman Dennis Moore.  Moore doesn’t take money from his victims in the sketch.  Instead, he robs the “Lupine Express”.


Lupines are an edible flower and, as you can see, at least the dwarf variety comes in multiple colo(u)rs.


We can’t show you the sketch, unfortunately, but we can give you the LINK to the audio recording, in which there is not only the robbery, but also a good deal of discussion about tree identification, with argument over a willow…


Considering penal laws in 18th-century England, where over 200 crimes were punishable by death, we don’t imagine that even a flower thief would have escaped the gallows, even if he did give the lupines to the deserving poor


Thanks, as ever, for reading—and, if attacked by highwaymen, try to be as well-armed as these people clearly were—


And thanks, as ever, for reading.




And how about a highwayman music video featuring Dick Turpin, brought to you courtesy of Horrible Histories?  Here’s the LINK.




Smugglers, or Pub Crawl 2


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

In our last, we were talking about inns and pubs, both in Middle-earth and in 1930s Oxford and we thought we had finished with the subject until there arrived in the mail/post a book from our good friend, Michael, in England.


Pubs anywhere are, we believe, immediately understandable, but why Kent and smugglers?

Since the royal government, under King John at the beginning of the 1200s, had begun to tax exports and imports, the best way around those taxes was either to smuggle or to deal, at some level, with smugglers.

Although such dealings had gone on for centuries, it appears that things intensified by the late 17th century and France was the reason.

From the late 17th-century, throughout the 18th century, and into the early 19th, England was at war with France, on land and sea.  In governmental terms, this meant that this warfare went through the reigns of Louis XIV,


Louis XV,



Louis XVI,



the French Revolution and its multiple governments,


and Napoleon.


In English terms, this meant William and Mary, Anne, and Georges I, II, and III, basically from 1690 to 1815.

During each one of those wars, there were laws in England about the importation of goods from the enemy.  That being the case, if those with the money to pay for such things wanted prohibited goods, they would have to rely upon the same smuggling used in peacetime, which they did.

Although the south coast of England in general had its smugglers, a map will show us why Kent would have been a very good place for such smuggling to go on.


As you can see, Dover, here, is only about 25 miles from the coast of France—a very easy trip and one not requiring large merchant ships to do it.


Smaller local boats, called luggers, could do the job and were also handy for offloading goods from larger English or foreign vessels, as well.


The government, seeing not only its laws violated, but revenue lost to the treasury from all the taxes not collected, tried to stop smuggling, using the navy


and occasional army units.


Success was very uncertain, however, as the officers of the law and their assistants were usually vastly outnumbered by the locals, whether smugglers or the many people in the area somehow complicit in smuggling operations.  Because pubs were social meeting places, they were obviously useful as headquarters for smugglers.

In 1915, Russell Thorndike (1885-1972),



an English actor and writer, published the first of a series of books about the adventures of a leader of one gang of smugglers, “Dr Syn”, in Doctor Syn, A Smuggling Tale of the Romney March.


(If you’d like to read a first edition, here’s a LINK.)

“Dr. Syn” looks like an easy joke on “sin”, but it may also be inspired by a figure from early-19th-century English comic literature, “Dr. Syntax”, a clergyman whose rhymed adventures, began with The Tour of Dr. Syntax:  In Search of the Picturesque, published in 1812 and written by William Combe.



The smuggler, “Dr. Syn” is actually a retired pirate, named Clegg, who masquerades as an Anglican priest, which is what “Dr. Syntax” actually is.  As well, we might imagine that “Dr. Syn” the smuggler, finds it a sin to pay the import taxes the government charges and has therefore joined the local smugglers.

If Clegg is masquerading as a clergyman by day, by night he takes on another mask:  as the leader of the gang which is based in Dymchurch, he becomes “The Scarecrow”.  Dymchurch is at the edge of Romney Marsh.  Here’s a map of the Marsh to give you an idea of its location and extent.


And, to give you an idea of the Marsh itself, here’s an image of a church on the Marsh, St. Thomas a Becket, which was originally in the village of Fairfield.  The village has disappeared, but the church remains.  (You can see it depicted on the left-hand side of the map of the Marsh.)


Thorndike’s character has appeared several times in films, the first time in 1937, where Dr. Syn was played by a famous character actor of the time, George Arliss.



If you would like to see this film, here are two links.  The first LINK is to the Internet Archive version.

The second LINK is to that on YouTube.

In 1963, the Walt Disney studio released their own version, Dr. Syn,


starring Patrick McGoohan as “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” and we think he’s pretty creepy in his mask.



Both movies are worth seeing, the Disney, in color, is full of Marsh and red coated dragoons, but the earlier film has a Dr. Syn who has the original pirate just below the surface—not so much hero, perhaps, as trickster.

But, you may be asking by this point, what about the pub?  To which we answer, here it is—the Ship Inn, in Dymchurch, headquarters for “The Scarecrow” and his gang.


And, right across the way, is the Church of St Peter and St Paul, where, in his other disguise, the ex-pirate, Clegg, appeared each Sunday as “Dr. Syn”.


Thanks, as ever, for reading and




Pub Crawl


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As ever, dear readers, welcome.

After a very disturbing evening with a group of vengeful and determined dwarves,


Bilbo wakes to a wreck of breakfast dishes and, soon after, the appearance of Gandalf, who prompts him to see that he has a note from Thorin (& Co.).  It makes an appointment for 11am that morning at the Green Dragon Inn, in Bywater.


With Gandalf harrying him, Bilbo barely makes it, but, a moment later, the journey eastward of The Hobbit begins.

It is ironic, of course, that a trip which focuses upon removing a dragon


should commence with a place named after one, but, judging by the number of Green Dragon pubs in Britain one might find by googling right now, it may be nothing more than a common name—





although, as Douglas Anderson points out in The Annotated Hobbit, 61, we know that JRRT had been interested in dragons, especially green ones, from childhood, as he wrote to WH Auden:

“I first tried to write a story when I was about seven.  It was about a dragon.  I remember nothing about it except a philological fact.  My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out out one could not say ‘a green great dragon,’ but had to say, ‘a great green dragon.’  I wondered why, and still do.” (Letters, 214, 7 June, 1955)

The countryside east of the Shire and the story itself are empty of pubs (short for “public houses”, originally meaning simply a place open to the general public, but, in time, it came to mean a place licensed by the government to sell alcoholic beverages) after this, but, until we reach Bree, there are a certain number mentioned in The Lord of the Rings.  We meet the first, The Ivy Bush, in The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”, where we see a group of hobbits gossiping about Bilbo and Frodo.  In the next chapter,  “The Shadow of the Past”, The Green Dragon makes its second appearance in Tolkien when Sam Gamgee has a verbal tussle with Ted Sandyman on the subject of things seen and unseen, as well as on the sanity, or lack of it, of Bilbo and Frodo, there.

The Ivy Bush will only appear once more, linked with The Green Dragon, in the succeeding chapter, “Three Is Company”, but we will see The Green Dragon (mentioned by Sam in hopes that The Prancing Pony in Bree will measure up to it in Chapter 8, “Fog on the Barrow-Downs”) close to the end of The Lord of the Rings.  In The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”, it appears as an emblem of the endless ruin by Sharkey and gang of the old ways of the Shire:  “When they reached The Green Dragon, the last house on the Hobbiton side [of the Water], now lifeless and with broken windows…”

This is in great contrast to The Prancing Pony Sam worried about earlier


as we see it in The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 9, “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony”.  At first, the place seems menacing, especially to Sam, who:

“…stared up at the inn with its three storeys and many windows, and felt his heart sink.”

But then—

“As they [the hobbits] hesitated outside in the gloom, someone began singing a merry song inside, and many cheerful voices joined loudly in the chorus.  They listened to this encouraging sound for a moment and then got off their ponies.  The song ended and there was a burst of laughter and clapping.”

Pubs, and their upscale cousins, inns, would have been vital to people traveling before motels, hotels, and b&bs, as we can see in Book One of The Fellowship, and, for most of the rest of the novel, with the exceptions of Rivendell, Lorien, Edoras, and Minas Tirith, accommodation for the night would have meant a blanket on the ground.  For Tolkien and his friends in the writers’ group called The Inklings,


they were vital meeting points—not for the reading of new work, which appears to have been done in one member, C.S. Lewis’, rooms at Oxford,


but for socializing and discussion, which was equally important for such a group of intelligent, educated, and highly-creative men.  (No women, alas!  One of our favorite mystery novelists and Dante-translator, Dorothy Sayers, 1893-1957, was friends with several members but, with the short-sightedness of the 1930s-50s, was never invited to join.)


They met during the week not only at the best-known of their watering holes, the Eagle and Child,


but at The Mitre,


The King’s Arms,


and at The White Horse.


The one which caught our eye in particular is the first, which, as we said, is probably the one most closely associated with Tolkien and his friends.  Here’s its sign—


The explanation of the pub’s name is, to us, a bit murky, supposedly coming from an element of the crest of the Stanley family which portrays an infant stolen by an eagle,


but found alive and unharmed.  (Here’s a LINK so that you can judge for yourself.)

For ourselves, the idea of a child stolen by a raptor makes us think of a really awful 19th-century song, “The Vulture of the Alps”, a poem set to music about 1842 by a famous American vocal group of the 1840s-1870s, the Hutchinson Family Singers.  The title pretty much says it all.


If you’d like to know more, here’s a LINK.

When we think of eagles and Tolkien, however, we remember them as rescuers—of Gandalf, the dwarves, and Bilbo from the goblins and Wargs


and as providers of air assault in The Hobbit.


And, in The Lord of the Rings, rescuer of Gandalf from Saruman,



as allies of the West at the battle at the Morannon,


and as saviors of Frodo and Sam on Mt Doom.


And it may be a crazy idea, but it makes us wonder—although Tolkien had abandoned The Hobbit unfinished in the early 1930s, he had picked it up again in 1936, just about the time the Inklings were meeting regularly (the first documented mention of them, apparently, is in a 1936 letter from CS Lewis to the novelist, Charles Williams, inviting him to join—see The Collected Letters of CS Lewis, Vol.2, 183—in a letter to William Luther White 9/11/67, JRRT dates the origins of the Inklings as “probably mid-thirties”—Letters, 387).  Could he have found his inspiration for these heroic birds and their habit of picking people up from the name of his pub?

As ever, thanks for reading.




If you haven’t read CS Lewis’ wonderful essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, here’s a LINK.


We have no illustration of Tolkien’s Green Dragon, but here’s a Tudor example from Wymondham in Norfolk which we think would do quite well.


Orc Logistics


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

In August, 1914, as the German army was pushing through Belgium


in its attempt to sweep to the west of Paris and drive the French armies


eastwards towards the Germans waiting for them there (the so-called Schlieffen Plan),


they were met by the small (70,000 man) BEF, British Expeditionary Force,


a few miles north of the Franco-Belgian border, near the town of Mons, where the British fought a delaying action.


The Germans were in such strength that the British were forced to pull back, retreating southward with the Germans pursuing so closely that the commander of one half of the British army (2nd Corps), Horace Smith-Dorrien,


decided that it was necessary to fight a second delaying action, at Le Cateau.


A major reason to do so was not just that the German pursuit was so close, but that it was necessary to protect the trains.  This doesn’t mean the railways, but the endless lines of wagons


which carried all the food and ammunition for the soldiers and stretched for miles behind them..


It was also primarily horse-drawn and, on narrow roads, mostly unpaved, the trains moved very slowly, which was a major reason why armies in earlier centuries rarely ever campaigned during winter.


This was a problem, all the way back to the Romans.  In the 2nd century BC, the Roman general, Marius, in an attempt to do away with as much of a baggage train as he could,


ordered his men to carry as much of their equipment as possible, thus cutting down on baggage wagons and pack animals.  His men were less than pleased at being so loaded down and began to call themselves “Marius’ mules”.


In the late 18th to early 19th century, when French revolutionary armies swelled beyond the ability to pay to supply them, the order was to travel lightly and to live off the land.  This may have reduced baggage—and even, perhaps, speeded up movement—but it made local people very hostile to the French and, in Spain, the response was to ambush the French whenever possible, which is where the word “guerilla” (originally meaning “little war”) comes from.



This could happen, particularly to Union supply trains,


during the American Civil War.


So, such trains were utterly necessary—if a large army had to cross miles of territory and perhaps fight on the way, they would need everything a train could carry.  At the same time, trains could be both vulnerable and thus draw off numbers of soldiers to protect them when such soldiers might be better employed on the battlefield, as well as cumbersome, because they were slow-moving, forcing armies to march at their speed (and in dry summer weather, the dust they raised could give away the direction of an army’s movements).


In The Lord of the Rings, we see two invasions:  that which attacks Helm’s Deep


and that which attacks Minas Tirith.


The mass of invaders is vividly described:

“For a staring moment the watchers on the walls saw all the space between them and Dike lit with white light:  it was boiling and crawling with black shapes, some squat and broad, some tall and grim, with high helms and sable shields.  Hundreds and hundreds more were pouring over the Dike and through the breach.”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 7, “Helm’s Deep”)

“The numbers that had already passed over the River could not be guessed in the darkness, but when morning, or its dim shadow, stole over the plain, it was seen that even fear by night had scarcely over-counted them.  The plain was dark with their marching companies, and as far as eyes could strain in the mirk there sprouted, like a foul fungus-growth, all about the beleaguered city great camps of tents, blac or somber red.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”)

And yet there is no hint of what will supply them in their assaults and beyond.  We could argue, of course, that, as in so many things, JRRT is interested in the movement of his narrative and its effects:  masses of orcs are much more menacing than long lines of wagons, and we’re sure that this is actually the case, but there is another possibility.  The Great War began in Belgium as a war of movement, huge armies attempting to outflank and block each other like chess players.  For better or worse, those armies needed such baggage trains, as we’ve said.  By the time Tolkien had arrived at the Western Front, in mid-1916, the war had become static, as if both sides had dug trenches and were besieging each other.



Supply was clearly still necessary, but it was a complex combination of ports and ships and railway lines and wagons and mules and even human mules, close to the front.


In a way, the whole business of supply had begun to look like just that:  a business, like importing bananas from the Caribbean, having them arrive in London, then passing them on by train to cities and towns across Britain.


So, instead of being part of long marching columns,image23marching.jpg

their even longer lines of wagons lagging behind, Second Lieutenant Tolkien would have seen long lines of men and animals, lugging endless boxes and cans and bundles—



necessary for war, but hardly dramatic, and so best left to the imagination of certain readers, those who can never see a battle without wondering, “When it’s time for lunch, who feeds all of those soldiers—or orcs (and never mind what certain people might eat)?”


As always, thanks for reading and