On the Horns


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

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

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


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


Those horns begin blowing because Theoden:

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

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

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


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

they look up to see:

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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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


We live in a world of such rapid electronic communication


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


or Roman


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


Drums might be used—


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


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



Thanks, as always, for reading.




Ring Composition


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

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


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


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

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


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


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


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



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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Lang (1844-1912),


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


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


and it was in this volume that a little boy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

As Gandalf has said of the Ring:

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

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

Thanks, as ever, for reading.




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

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

A Little Ring, the Least of Rings


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

We’ve recently been reading a book about Napoleon


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



raised new armies,



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



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


where he died in 1821.


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


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


and then, in 1804, Emperor.


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



to Jinghiz Khan and his successors,



to Hitler.



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


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


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


He also controls the Nazgul,


massive armies of orcs,


as well as allies from the Harads and Umbar.


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

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


This is true for Bilbo, as well,


and for Frodo–


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


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


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

To which she replies:

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

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

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

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

Or when Frodo offers it to Galadriel:

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


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

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

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

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

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


Thanks for reading!






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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

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


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


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

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



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




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



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


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


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


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


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


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



The end of this brought more relief and rejoicing.


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


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


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


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


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


This was then succeeded by the First Galactic Empire,


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


But, when the Empire was eventually defeated,


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


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


the wreckage at Minas Tirith,


and, of course, the decimation of the Shire.


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


was permanently out of human reach—


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

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

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

For Tolkien, who loved trees more than almost anything,


perhaps this would have been enough.


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



Hands Down


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As always, dear readers, welcome.

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

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

That White Hand is, of course, Saruman’s


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

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


We can imagine why Sauron has that red eye


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


described as:

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

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

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


Thanks, as ever, for reading.



Baruk Khazad!


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As always, dear readers, welcome.

Ever since we saw the original Lord of the Rings films, we’ve been thinking about Gimli and his major weapon.


In The Hobbit, it would appear that the dwarves had not been armed until they used what was in the Lonely Mountain after Smaug had gone:

“Now the dwarves took down mail and weapons from the walls, and armed themselves.  Royal indeed did Thorin look, clad in a coat of gold-plated rings, with a silver-hafted axe in a belt crusted with scarlet stones.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 13, “Not at Home”)

This is where the mithril coat which eventually protects Frodo in Moria and turns up in the hands of the Mouth of Sauron comes from, when Thorin gives it to Bilbo.


Not long after we first meet Gimli, at the Council of Elrond, however, we see Gimli already kitted out for war:

“Gimli the dwarf alone wore openly a short shirt of steel rings, for dwarves make light of burdens; and in his belt was a broad-bladed axe.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Ring Goes South”)

Certainly, the axe in Gimli’s right hand in the photo wouldn’t fit through a belt and allow for comfort or freedom of movement and we note that, in that same photo, Gimli appears to have another—but that looks too long for comfort, as well.


That the two axes fit in with the general persona of dwarves, however, seems to be true—after all, the translation of our title for this post is “Axes of the dwarves!”  (to be followed by Khazad ai-menu!  “the dwarves are upon you!”), which is the dwarves’ rallying cry.  What kind (or kinds) of axes these are doesn’t seem so clear, then.  Alan Lee, for example, shows us a dwarf with something which isn’t really an axe at all, but looks more like an adze, which is a tool used in woodworking to smooth and shape wood.


the Broad Axe vs. the Adze - Handmade Houses... with Noah ...



Because JRRT describes Gimli’s axe as being tuckable, we wondered whether he was thinking of the kind of throwing axe, a francisca, used by Frankish warriors (and which gave them their name).



When we actually see Gimli in battle, however, he isn’t throwing, but swinging his axe.  At Helm’s deep he says to Legolas, “Give me a row of orc-necks and room to swing and all weariness will fall from me!”  And then he swings that axe:  “An axe swung and swept back.  Two Orcs fell headless.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 7, “Helm’s Deep”)

This leads us to ask if perhaps JRRT himself wasn’t clear about Gimli’s weapon.  He never throws it, using it always as a chopper, and, when we thinking of axes with a haft—that is, handle–long enough to do that, we don’t think of that odd item in the image above—which doesn’t look substantial enough to cut through cervical vertebrae—


but rather of the long-hafted axe, or “Dane axe”  perhaps carried by the giant Viking who defended Stamford Bridge single-handedly against the Anglo-Saxons on 25 September, 1066,



with its razor-sharp blade.


This was the kind of axe that we see carried by the huscarl, the bodyguards, of the English king, Harold Godwinson, in the depiction of the Battle of Hastings, 14 October, 1066, on the so-called Bayeux Tapestry.



One of which Harold may himself been carrying when he was killed, if the caption on the cloth is referring to Harold being cut down by the mounted Norman in this part of the tapestry.


These same axes also appear to turn up as part of the armament of the Varangian Guard, the bodyguard of a number of Byzantine emperors from the 10th to 14th centuries, as depicted in the 11th-century  Skylitzis Chronicle.


Much of this guard was made up of Norsemen and Anglo-Saxons, so the pattern of axe, we imagine, was something which both groups brought with them from their original homes.


This is clearly the sort of thing to whack off heads, even two at a time, and so, if we can quietly detach it from Gimli’s belt and have him stand, perhaps even leaning on it, we have the Gimli who competes with Legolas at Helm’s Deep in the number of orcs each has dispatched.


Thanks, as ever, for reading.



Who Goes There? (4)


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Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

This post will complete our series on watchmen, sentries, and patrols in The Lord of the Rings and how confrontations with such figures may change the action.

In our last, we’d gotten as far as Edoras and, within, Meduseld, with Hama, its doorwarden.


(This is actually from John Howe’s painting of Heorot, the mead hall in Beowulf, but, as Meduseld is meant to mean “mead hall” in Rohirric—the language of Rohan—we figure that we can justify the substitution.)

From Edoras, we’ll follow Gandalf and Pippin to Minas Tirith,


passing through the Rammas Echor, the old barrier wall protecting the fields of the Pelennor, where Gandalf talks  with Ingold, who appears to be in charge of repairing a section of that wall fallen into disrepair.  (See The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)  We don’t have a illustration of this—although we think that it would make a good one—so, as we think of the Rammas Echor as a cousin of Hadrian’s wall, here’s an illustration of that wall under construction, just to give the idea.


But we said we will follow Gandalf and Pippin.  First, we have to double back to Isengard, where the Ents have wreaked justifiable havoc.


(A T Nasmith we’ve used before)

When Gandalf and crowd come to call upon Saruman, they meet with very different doorwardens from Hama:

“The king and all his company sat silent on their horses, marvelling, perceiving that the power of Saruman was overthrown; but how they could not guess.  And now they turned their eyes towards the archway and the ruined gates.  There they saw close beside them a great rubble heap; and suddenly they were aware of two small figures lying on it at their ease, grey-clad, hardly to be seen among the stones.  There were bottles and bowls and platters laid beside them, as if they had just eaten well, and now rested from their labour.  One seemed asleep, the other, with crossed legs and arms behind his head, leaned back against a broken rock and sent from his mouth long wisps and little rings of thin blue smoke.”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 8, “The Road to Isengard”)


It’s Merry and Pippin, of course, and, for Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, after their long, grim march across northern Rohan in search of their missing companions, only to have Eomer suggest that they’ve been killed with the orcs, this is certainly a change of mood, as well as a change of plot—not only are the two restored, but Pippin will help to rescue Faramir from his mad father and Merry will save Eowyn from the Nazgul.

Now, however, having picked up Pippin, we’ll continue on to Minas Tirith,


where, at the approach of Shadowfax:

“So Gandalf and Peregrin rode to the Great Gate of the Men of Gondor at the rising of the sun, and its iron doors rolled back before them…Then men fell back before the command of his voice…” (The Return of the King, Book 5, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)

Passing up through the seven levels of the city, they dismounted at the gate of the Citadel, where:

“The Guards of the gate were robed in black, and their helms were of strange shape, high-crowned, with long cheek-guards close-fitting to the face, and above the cheek-guards were set the white wings of sea-birds; but the helms gleamed with a flame of silver, for they were indeed wrought of mithril, heirlooms from the glory of old days.  Upon the black surcoats were embroidered in white a tree blossoming like snow beneath a silver crown and many-pointed stars.”

This was an image surprisingly difficult to find.  Here’s a depiction (sort of) from the Jackson films.


The helmet might be right, but the black surcoat is missing—here’s Pippin, also from the films, wearing one.


We add to this an image by a Russian illustrator, Denis Gordeev.  Here, the helmet may not be quite what we’d expect, but the rest of the ensemble works.


It says much for Gandalf’s influence in Minas Tirith that neither does Ingold, at the Rammas Echor, challenge him, nor the guards at the main gate of Minas Tirith, nor those at the Citadel—as Ingold says:

“Yea, truly we know you, Mithrandir…and you know the pass-words of the Seven Gates and are free to go forward.”

Our next sentries, are not so easily passed however, as Frodo and Sam discover, when:

“Four tall Men stood there.  Two had spears in their hands with broad bright heads.  Two had great bows, almost of their own height, and great quivers of long green-feathered arrows.  All had swords at their sides, and were clad in green and brown of varied hues, as if the better to walk unseen in the glades of Ithilien.  Green gauntlets covered their hands, and their faces were hooded and masked with green, except for their eyes, which were very keen and bright.” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 4, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”)


Their outfits immediately made us think of NC Wyeth’s Robin Hood and his men


from Wyeth’s 1917 Robin-hood.


Their leader, Faramir, questions Frodo and Sam closely before letting them go—and this meeting gives Faramir news of the end of Boromir, a view of Boromir’s character from Frodo, as well as providing us with a view of Faramir, who says of the Ring:

“I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway.  Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory.  No, I do not wish for such triumphs, Frodo son of Drogo.”  (The Two Towers, Book Four,  Chapter 5, “The Window on the West”)

Once he knows their purpose, Faramir lets them go—to much worse sentries.  First, there are orc patrols, like those of Shagrat and Gorbag.

Image13:  shag and bagimage13shagnbag.jpg

There is no conversation here between hobbits and orcs, but we certainly gain a better view of orc loyalty, as one orc leader, Gorbag, says to another, Shagrat:

“What d’you say? –if we get a chance, you and me’ll slip off and set up somewhere on our own with a few trusty lads, somewhere where there’s good loot nice and handy, and no big bosses.” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 10, “The Choices of Master Samwise”)

Then there are the Watchers at the Tower of Cirith Ungol:

“They were like great figures seated upon thrones.  Each had three joined bodies, and three heads facing outward, and inward, and across the gateway.  The heads had vulture-faces, and on their great knees were laid clawlike hands.  They seemed to be carved out of huge blocks of stone, immovable, and yet they were aware:  some dreadful spirit of evil vigilance abode in them.  They knew an enemy.  Visible or invisible none could pass unheeded…” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”)


And here are the last sentries and perhaps a last sign for Frodo and Sam before their terrible and near-fatal trip across Mordor that there is still power for good in a world grown dark.  Having rescued Frodo from his orcish imprisonment, Sam and Frodo have come up against the Watchers, who seem to block their way until:

“ ‘Gilthoniel, A Elbereth!’ Sam cried…

Aiya elenion ancalima!’ cried Frodo once again behind him.

The will of the Watchers was broken with a suddenness like the snapping of a cord, and Frodo and Sam stumbled forward. “

There are no more sentries, although the two hobbits will be passed by a small search party and will then be swept up into an orc marching company before being on their own on the way to Mount Doom, where we will leave them and this set of postings.

As always, thanks for reading and



Who Goes There? (3)


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

We’re in the third installment of a little series about sentries and patrols in Middle-earth.

We had begun in the first installment in the Shire, with the shirriffs, then the watchman in Bree, then the watcher in the lake at the western gates of Moria, then the Elves of Lorien under Haldir, finishing with the Argonath, the biggest sentries of all.


Now, as we move south, we encounter our first patrol.  From his experience in the Great War,


JRRT would have been very familiar with groups of armed men spreading out across the countryside, either slipping into enemy territory or simply guarding the edges of their own.


And patrols could be on horseback, as well as on foot—and not necessarily friendly, either.


As Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli cross northern Rohan in their attempt to rescue Merry and Pippin, they run into one of these patrols:  Eomer and his Rohirrim.



As we mentioned in our second installment, when it comes to The Lord of the Rings, encounters with watchers of any sort often lead to developments in the plot and this is certainly true when the three meet with Eomer.  They have pursued the Orcs for days in hopes of rescuing Merry and Pippin, only to be told that the band in which the two hobbits were being kept prisoner has been destroyed completely:

“ ‘Did you search the slain?’” Aragorn asks, explaining, “ ‘Were there no bodies other than those of orc-kind?  They would be small, only children to your eyes, unshod but clad in grey.’

‘There were no dwarves nor children,’ said Eomer.  ‘We counted all the slain and despoiled them, and then we piled the carcasses and burned them, as is our custom.  The ashes are smoking still.’” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 2, “The Riders of Rohan”)

Aragorn is unshaken in his belief that the two may still be alive, however, and the three will continue their search, but now, as Eomer has loaned them horses, so he has lain an obligation upon Aragorn:

“ ‘You may go; and what is more, I will lend you horses.  This only I ask:  when your quest is achieved, or is proved vain, return with the horses over the Entwade to Meduseld, the high house in Edoras where Theoden now sits.  Thus you shall prove to him that I have not misjudged.  In this I place myself, and maybe my very life, in the keeping of your good faith.  Do not fail.’ “

And so, rather than to continue to Minas Tirith, as Aragorn had planned, he and his two companions are to be diverted to the capital of Rohan, instead.  Meeting Gandalf in their search,


they fulfill Aragorn’s promise and are met by two separate sets of watchmen.  First, at the gates of Edoras:

“There sat many men in bright mail, who sprang at once to their feet and barred the way with spears. ‘Stay, strangers here unknown!’ they cried in the tongue of the Riddermark, demanding the names and errand of the strangers.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 6, “The King of the Golden Hall”)

In his reply, Gandalf speaks in the language of Rohan, but wonders “Why do you not speak in the Common Tongue, as is the custom in the West, if you wish to be answered?”

To which one of the guards replies:  “It is the will of Theoden King that none should enter his gates, save those who know our tongue and are our friends.”

[This use of language as a screening test, by the way, reminds us of a well-known story from the Hebrew Bible, in which, when the Ephraimites were defeated in battle and attempted to escape over the Jordan River, their opponents, the men of Gilead, stood at the crossings and, whenever a strange man tried to ford  the river, the Gileadites would demand that he pronounce the word “shibboleth” (which means “a stalk of grain”, among other things).  In the Ephraimite dialect of Hebrew, the consonant combination “sh” was said “s”, and so, at least as the story goes, every Ephraimite warrior who slipped and said “shibboleth” was immediately revealed to be an enemy soldier and was captured and killed.  (See The Book of Judges, Chapter 12)]

Aragorn has already been warned by Eomer that all is not well in Edoras, as he has said about Saruman, who has become an enemy of Rohan, “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.”

This confrontation between guards and Gandalf immediately makes Gandalf wary, especially when he hears from one of the sentries that:

“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.”

Knowing from this that Wormtongue is inserting himself into Theoden’s actions prepares Gandalf to deal with the next sentry, the Doorward Hama.

“Then one of the guards stepped forward and spoke in the Common Speech.

‘I am the Doorward of Theoden…Hama is my name.  Here I must bid you lay aside your weapons before you enter.’ “

[If you read us regularly, you’ll recognize this figure from Beowulf.  There he is named Wulfgar, and he is the herald of King Hrothgar.  See Beowulf, 330-355.]

Although Legolas easily puts aside his weapons, Aragorn is a bit stiff-necked, refusing, at first, to put down Anduril until Gandalf offers his sword, Glamdring, followed by Gimli, who places his axe with the other weapons.  Hama hasn’t finished, however:

“The guard still hesitated.  ‘Your staff,’ he said to Gandalf.  ‘Forgive me, but that too must be left at the doors.’ “

Gandalf appears to object, on the grounds of his age:

“Foolishness!…Prudence is one thing, but discourtesy is another.  I am old.  If I may not lean on my stick as I go, then I will sit out here, until it pleases Theoden to hobble out himself to speak with me.”

Hama has a moment of proper doubt—“  ‘The staff in the hand of a wizard may be more than a prop for age.’ “—but he still allows Gandalf to carry his staff, which he then uses to disarm Grima Wormtongue and break the spell which has prematurely aged Theoden.

We have now added three more watchmen or groups to our growing list, all from Rohan and each meeting having had an effect upon those involved.  In the final installment of our series, we’ll leave the grassy plains of the Riddermark for Gondor, then cross the Anduin into a very different world.

Till then, thanks, as ever, for reading and



Who Goes There? (2)


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As ever, dear readers, welcome.

In our last, we had begun discussion of the use of watchmen/sentries in The Lord of the Rings.  In our last, in fact, we had stopped with what is well-known to have been a strong influence—especially in The Hobbit—upon JRRT:  Beowulf, and its two such figures.  Here’s Beowulf with the first.


What particularly interests us is that, often when such a figure—or figures—is encountered, it slows the action, but, interestingly, may cause further action at the same time:  the protagonist can be challenged, questioned, or even forced to act—all part of what we call “no fiction without friction”—and we’ll see what this does for the characters now as we’re off on our journey through Middle-earth, beginning  where The Lord of the Rings begins, in the Shire.


Before we go farther, however, we would like to expand our definition of watchman/sentry just a little to include the mobile equivalent of sentries, patrols:

“The Shirriffs was the name that the Hobbits gave to their police, or the nearest equivalent that they possessed…There were in the Shire only twelve of them, three in each Farthing, for Inside Work.  A rather larger body, varying at need, was employed to ‘beat the bounds’, and to see that Outsiders of any kind, great or small, did not make themselves a nuisance.”  (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, 3, “Of the Ordering of the Shire”)

Tolkien says of these shirriffs that “they were in practice rather haywards then policemen”, and “hay” here doesn’t  mean horse and cattle feed  but, rather, it’s an old word for “hedge”(from Old English “haga”) and we see our next sentry at the hedge which surrounds Bree.  Initially, this is “old Harry”, who seems, when the hobbits arrive, a bit too inquisitive:

“They came to the West-gate and found it shut; but at the door of the lodge beyond it, there was a man sitting.  He jumped up and fetched a lantern and looked over the gate at them in surprise.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 9, “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony”)

It says, perhaps, something about the confidence of the Elves that, at Rivendell, there are neither sentries nor patrols—although perhaps the River Bruinen might be considered at least a defense, considering that it sweeps away the Nazgul when they try to cross.

At the Ford, by Ted Nasmith

(Image by one of our favorite Tolkien illustrators, Ted Nasmith)

This idea of a natural force as sentry appears again before the Fellowship enters Moria—although, this time, as they climb along the mountains on the way south, it is decidedly not on their side:

“They heard eerie noises in the darkness round them.  It may have been only a trick of the wind in the cracks and gullies of the rocky wall, but the sounds were those of shrill cries, and wild howls of laughter.  Stones began to fall from the mountain-side, whistling over their heads, or crashing on the path beside them.  Every now and again they heard a dull rumble, as a great boulder rolled down from hidden heights above.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Ring Goes South”)

The combination of rock and snow forces the Fellowship to make what seems at the time a fatal decision:  to go not south, but east, into the Mines of Moria, with the disappearance of Gandalf as the consequence.

At the western doors of Moria, however, they encounter another negative force, something in the manmade lake in front of those doors.  It is a watcher, if not an active sentry, although what it really is, even Gandalf doesn’t know:

“Something has crept or has been driven out of dark waters under the mountains.  There are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 4, “A Journey in the Dark”)


Whatever this creature may be (and it has lots of tentacles, which makes us think immediately of the squid with which the crew of the submarine Nautilus has to contend in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea)


their encounter with it insures that their choice of traveling through Moria can’t be revoked:

“Many coiling arms seized the doors on either side, and with horrible strength, swung them round.  With a shattering echo they slammed, and all light was lost.  A noise of rending and crashing came dully through the ponderous stone…They heard Gandalf go back down the steps and thrust his staff against the doors.  There was a quiver in the stone and the stairs trembled, but the doors did not open.”

On the far side of Moria, at the edge of Lorien, the company meets its next watcher—or watchers, rather, a listening post of Elves set on a platform in a tree, where:

“…[Frodo] found Legolas seated with three other Elves.  They were clad in shadowy-grey, and could not be seen among the tree-stems, unless they moved suddenly.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 6, “Lothlorien”)

And here we see an interesting development brought on by contact with the Elves at this sentry-post.  Because the Elves are mistrustful of Gimli, there is an awkward moment:  he is to be led blindfolded into the center of Lorien, something he resists until Aragorn proposes that all be blindfolded, to which Gimli makes a counterproposal that only Legolas need be blindfolded, which Legolas resists, and all are back to Aragorn’s proposal, but the leader of the Elves, Haldir, draws a moral from the situation:

“Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him.”

Our last sentries for this posting are more a symbol in that they are inanimate, but full of warning all the same:

“  ‘Behold the Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings!’ cried Aragorn…

As Frodo was borne towards them the great pillars rose like towers to meet him.  Giants they seemed to him, vast grey figures silent but threatening.  Then he saw that they were indeed shaped and fashioned…Upon great pedestals founded in the deep waters stood two great kings of stone:  still with blurred eyes and crannied brows they frowned upon the North.  The left hand of each was raised palm outwards in gesture of warning; in each right hand there was an axe; upon each head there was a crumbling helm and crown.  Great power and majesty they still wore, the silent wardens of a long-vanished kingdom. “  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 9, “The Great River”)

argonath hildebrandt

But, for all their forbidding look, they spark something in Aragorn—

“ ‘Fear not!’ said a strange voice behind him.  Frodo turned and saw Strider, and yet not Strider; for the weatherworn Ranger was no longer there.  In the stern sat Aragorn son of Arathorn, proud and erect, guiding the boat with skilful strokes; his hood was cast back, and his dark hair was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eyes:  a king returning from exile to his own land.”

And, on that inspiring note, we’ll pause for this posting, saving the rest of the sentries, watchers, and patrols for Part 3.

In the meantime, thanks, as always, for reading.



Who’s There? (1)


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

We have always been Shakespeare fans, our favorite plays being Macbeth, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale, Henry V—and we guess we’d add a few more, too, as we think about it.  Our first love was Hamlet.


It opens with a nervous sentry on the battlements of Elsinore castle.  (Actually Kronborg—the local town is Helsingor—here’s the castle today), in the kingdom of Denmark.


Something uncanny appears to be happening and, when his replacement comes, we have the idea that it’s made the watchmen jumpy:

The Tragicall Historie of

HAMLETPrince of Denmarke.

Enter Two Centinels.

  1. STand: who is that?
  2. Tis I.
  3. O you come most carefully vpon your watch,
  4. And if you meete Marcellus and Horatio,

The partners of my watch, bid them make haste.

  1. I will: See who goes there.

Enter Horatio and Marcellus.

Hor. Friends to this ground.

Mar. And leegemen to the Dane,

O farewell honest souldier, who hath releeued you?

  1. Barnardo hath my place, giue you good night.

Mar. Holla, Barnardo.

  1. Say, is Horatio there?

Hor. A peece of him.

  1. Welcome Horatio, welcome good Marcellus.

Mar. What hath this thing appear’d againe to night.

  1. I haue seene nothing.

Mar. Horatio sayes tis but our fantasie,

And wil not let beliefe take hold of him,

Touching this dreaded sight twice seene by vs,

Therefore I haue intreated him a long with vs

To watch the minutes of this night,

That if againe this apparition come,

He may approoue our eyes, and speake to it.

(The Tragicall History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, from its first publication, the First Folio, 1603)

We love the way Shakespeare begins with two minor characters discussing “this thing”—and we won’t learn till deeper in the scene that what they’ve seen was the ghost of Hamlet’s father:  a wonderful, spooky—and intriguing—opening.

This isn’t a Shakepeare posting, however.  What really interested us recently was, in fact, that it’s with two sentries that the play commences. Their job is to watch for anyone who might try to enter the castle for nefarious purposes (and, try as they might, they can’t do that with a ghost) and it got us to thinking about sentries in The Lord of the Rings and just how many there actually are.

From his experience in the Great War, Tolkien would have been very experienced with such people


and even from simply visiting London.


(The Queen has five regiments of foot guards, by the way.  The buttons in twos on his tunic—as well as the red plume on his fur cap—tell us that he belongs to the second regiment, the Coldstream Guards—here’s a chart so that you, too, can be able to tell them apart.)


His scholarly experience would have added to this, particularly in his long-time study of Beowulf,


in which two such folk appear.  First, Beowulf and his companions encounter a kind of coast guard, when they cross from what is now southern Sweden to Denmark.


On the shore, a Danish watchman


challenges them:

“From rocks up above them
Hrothgar’s sentinel,
whose task was to guard
and patrol the sea-cliffs,
saw strangers who bore
stout battle-gear
and sturdy war-shields
striding down the gangplank;
he needed to know
who these newcomers were.
Mounting his horse
he made for the beach,
brandished his spear
and bluntly challenged
the foreign sailors
with formal words:
‘Who are you, you unknown
ironclad men,
alien troops
armed in mailcoats,
bringing your boat
from abroad, crossing
the sounding sea?’ “

(This is from Section III of  Dick Ringler’s 2005 translation, intentionally designed for recitation aloud.  Here’s the LINK to the full text.  If this is your first experience of the poem, we very much recommend that you visit the site and have a look—our students like the translation and the introductory material is very helpful.)

Beowulf’s response and the look of him and his men so impresses the coastguard that he not only lets them pass, but even says that he will detach someone to keep an eye on their boat while they’re moving inland to visit the king, Hrothgar.

At Hrothgar’s palace, however, they meet with a second guard:

“An eagle-eyed sentry
who stood in the doorway
studied them closely.
‘What country do you come from
with your curved shields,
your meshed war-shirts
and mask-helmets,
your iron spears?
I am the herald
of noble Hrothgar.
I have never seen
so bold or brave
a band of foreigners,
so it is less likely
that you are landless strays
than valiant adventurers
visiting my king.’ “

(from section V of the Ringler)

Again, the look of Beowulf and his men and Beowulf’s humble address persuades Wulfgar, the herald, to agree to take a message about them to Hrothgar—and Hrothgar tells us that he has had dealings long before with Beowulf’s father and remembers Beowulf, as well.

There are no coastguards in The Lord of the Rings, but Wulfgar bears a strong family resemblance to Hama, the Doorward of Theoden, when Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli come to Meduseld, but we’ll see more of him in the second part of our look at sentries in our next posting.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, as ever.