No (Gondorian) Man’s Land

As always, dear readers, welcome.

More than once, people have likened Mordor to the Black Country of central England,

or perhaps even to the blighted landscape of the Western Front,

but could we extend that even farther west, to the long approach by which Frodo and Sam, led by Gollum, make their way towards Minas Morgul?

Faramir, who has captured Frodo and Sam

while setting an ambush for a column of Sauron’s allies, including their oliphaunts,

 is now trying to warn Frodo both from traveling with Gollum and from going that route to Mordor as Gollum has proposed, saying,

“The valley of Minas Morgul passed into evil very long ago, and it was a menace and a dread while the banished Enemy dwelt yet far away, and Ithilien was still for the most part in our keeping.  As you know, that city was once a strong place, proud and fair, Minas Ithil, the twin sister of our own city.  But it was taken by fell men whom the Enemy in his first strength had dominated, and who wandered homeless and masterless after his fall…After his going they took Minas Ithil and dwelt there, and they filled it, and all the valley about, with decay:  it seemed empty and was not so, for a shapeless fear lived within the ruined walls.”  (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 6, “The Forbidden Pool”)

Rereading this, then, the first image which came to my mind was not this—

but this—

and what the new Second Lieutenant Tolkien

must have seen when he arrived in the trenches

as a signals officer

in June, 1916.

At first, it would simply have been the view beyond the trenches, which was grim:  acres (hectares) of barbed wire would block seeing much farther than the lip of the entrenchment.

And, because enemy snipers with specialized rifles were just waiting for a soldier to poke his head up, it wasn’t really a good idea to do that anyway.

(There’s even a mocking song on the subject from 1918, a British soldier suggesting to his enemy counterpart that keeping your head down was the only way to survive.  This is the chorus:

“Late last night in the pale moon light
I saw you, I saw you!
You were fixing your barb’d wire
When we opened up – rapid fire!
If you want to see your Vater in the Vaterland
Keep your head down Fritzie boy
Keep your Head down Fritzie Boy!”

(You can hear a period performance here: )

As is true with many Great War soldiers’ songs, it’s a parody of a 1913 hit “Hold Your Hand Out, Naughty Boy”)

(And here’s the original: )

Although those trenches were grim,

the world beyond those trenches, could JRRT have seen it—and he would have seen a little of it as his unit moved forward during the vast battle called “the Somme”–was an even bleaker one.  Several years of war and the pounding of big guns, both German

and British

had destroyed trees,



whole villages

and even towns.

The ruined landscape between the Allied and German trenches was commonly called “No Man’s Land”, rather like a withered version of the Ithilien in which Faramir fights his war, but it was actually a sort of everyman’s land as, once darkness fell, one might see soldiers of both sides at various tasks.

All of that barbed wire needed replacement and extension and wiring parties (a duty soldiers hated as, in the dark, they were as likely to be shot at by their own side as by the enemy) slipped out to work on their entanglements.

Then there were always patrols—

small groups whose job it was to prevent the enemy from slipping across the broken ground to spy or even to make minor attacks, called “trench raids”,

meant both to keep the other side nervous and to gather information, through prisoners or captured documents or even from what might seem like a minor item, like the badge from a cap.

Such badges, like this one, could carry distinctive regimental emblems, providing the raiders with a sense of what regiment was facing them and thus adding to the more general picture of enemy movements on their own side of No Man’s Land.  (This is, in fact, the badge of JRRT’s own regiment, the Lancashire Fusiliers.)

It’s easy, then, to imagine Faramir and his men in their camouflage suddenly appearing here:

“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.”  (

And, when the Germans withdrew to a second position, in 1917, the “Hindenburg Line”, they left behind them much more destruction, even cutting down fruit trees to deny them to the Allies.

As Frodo and Sam move eastward, I can imagine them walking through that same landscape

until they came to this—

at the crossroads—

north to the Morannon, south to Harad, west to Minas Tirith through ruined Osgiliath, east to Mordor—where they found:

“The brief glow fell upon a huge sitting figure, still and solemn as the great stone kings of Argonath.  The years had gnawed it, and violent hands had maimed it.  Its head was gone, and in its place was set in mockery a round rough-hewn stone, rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large red eye in the midst of its forehead.  Upon its knees and mighty chair, and all about the pedestal, were idle scrawls mixed with the foul symbols that the maggot-folk of Mordor used.” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 7, “Journey to the Cross-Roads”)

If Tolkien could visit the same area over which both sides struggled in the summer of 1916, instead of endless blight—

he would see, among the overgrown trenches,

and the still-discovered remains of century-old bombardments,


and perhaps, in hopes of a world more like the latter, he would add to that description of the maimed king:

“Suddenly, caught by the level beams, Frodo saw the old king’s head:  it was lying rolled away by the roadside.  ‘Look, Sam!’ he cried, startled into speech.  ‘Look!  The king has got a crown again!’

The eyes were hollow and the carven beard was broken, but above the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold.  A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed.

‘They cannot conquer for ever!’ said Frodo.” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 7, “Journey to the Cross-Roads”)

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Stay well,

Mistrust guides with ulterior motives,

And know that, as ever, there’s



Gondor, Angria, Gondal, and Boxen

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

I suspect that anyone who has spent any time with Tolkien has probably seen this passage:

“The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.  To me a name comes first and the story follows.” (letter to Houghton Mifflin, 30 June, 1955—with a rather complicated history—see Letters 219 for the quotation and 218 for an explanation)

As a rather sceptical person, I’ve always then looked at the extensive appendices to my copy of The Lord of the Rings,

which cover pages 1033-1138, and then at the many volumes subsequently edited and published by Christopher Tolkien,

and thought, “That’s an awful lot of ‘story’ for the bits and pieces of Elvish, Dwarfish, and even Black Speech, which are to be found there.”

And so I wondered if JRRT, for all of his language passion, hadn’t also a passion for world-creating and was somehow misrepresenting himself and his creativity.  As a young grown-up, he certainly once had large plans, as he explained in this 1951 letter to Milton Waldman:

“But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths…” (Letters, 144)

We know that, as a child, he was given those “fairy-stories”, from books like Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book (1890),

and it’s clear that he once even tried his hand at writing such a story:

“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 that one could not say ‘a green great dragon’, but had to say ‘a great green dragon’.  I wondered why, and still do.  The fact that I remember this is possibly significant, as I do not think I ever tried to write a story again for many years…”  (letter of 7 June, 1955, to W.H. Auden, Letters, 214)

(This lovely beast is by “Deskridge”—that’s Daniel Eskridge–at Deviant Art—I couldn’t resist including it.  If you’d like to see more of his work, you can find it at:  )

When he took up story telling again, however, it was, by his own account “Say 1912 to 1913.”, when he was a student at Oxford.

(He’s easy to spot, isn’t he?  In the far back, clinging to that rather elderly vine.)

And, to my sceptical mind, the question was always, why?

After all, in contrast to JRRT’s one attempt at such things at seven, and then not again till his very late teens, early twenties, we have two literary families who began very early at world-building.

The first began in a rather bleak part of England in 1826

with a gift of wooden soldiers

by a priest father

to his son

and his three daughters.

The soldiers became characters in a place first called “Glasstown”, then the “Glasstown Confederacy” which was then extended by two of the four children, Branwell Bronte (1817-1848)

and his sister, Charlotte (1816-1855),

into the more complex world of “Angria”,

of which Charlotte has left us a series of short story accounts of some of its characters and events.

The two younger sisters, Anne (1820-1849)

and Emily (1818-1848)

were soon relegated to minor positions in this world and, in time, seceded, perhaps about 1834, creating their own world, Gondal.

(I found this recreation at the website of “Merricat Mulwray”, credited to “Bruce Poulsen”.  Here’s the website, should you like to read the attached essay: )

We appear to have much more about Angria, thanks to Charlotte, but some Gondal material survives, in bits and pieces, as well as in a series of poems by Emily, found in a manuscript and first printed in their original form in 1938.  (Some, heavily edited by Charlotte, had appeared earlier.)

The older children seem to have abandoned Angria with childhood, but Anne and Emily continued their creation into adulthood—here is a wonderful sketch, by Emily, of the two sisters at work in 1837.

Another literary pair, almost a century later, lived in a house in northern Ireland

which appears to have been piled high with books.  As one of a pair of children, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

described it in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1956:)

“There were books in the study, books in the drawing-room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for children and books most emphatically not.” (quoted in Lewis and Lewis, Boxen, 348-349)

This was a world of rainy day reading, in a place where there were many rainy days, at a time when middle-class children like the Lewises,

were watched closely for signs of childhood illnesses and kept at home, just in case.  These two children, the older, Warren (1895-1973),

dubbed forever “Warnie” by his brother, and Clive, who, as a child renamed himself “Jack”, practically immured at times, read and read and began to evolve new worlds from what they found in books and their imaginations.  The initial result was Warnie’s “India” and Jack’s “Animal-Land”, which were then blended into the more comprehensive “Boxen”.  Characters and situations came from their reading and from the political world around them (this would have been in the years of rising international tension before the Great War of 1914-1918, in which both served, and when there was increasing debate over whether Ireland would have home rule, or continue to be governed from London) and the material eventually gathered and published in 1985

sometimes reads like a comic nightmare version of the sort of history from which Stephen Daedalus was trying to awaken in Ulysses—itself begun in 1907.   Perhaps one of my favorite characters combines a monarch at a time when virtually all of Europe was in the hands of royal families (many of them the descendants of Queen Victoria),

with a character from the world of Beatrix Potter,

to produce King Bunny.

(imagine his tam-o-shanter replaced with a crown)

Such childish creativity brings me back to that “green great dragon”.  It’s clear from the mass of later material that Tolkien had the ability to create worlds even more complex than Angria, Gondal, or Boxen:  why didn’t he begin to do so until his university days?  Perhaps because the Brontes had each other to bounce ideas off, as did the Lewises?  JRRT’s own brother, Hillary, is a shadowy figure, especially in contrast to the almost hyperactive and endlessly creative Brontes.  I wonder, however, if along with being on his own creatively, Tolkien also lacked the very stimulus to create such worlds with which I began this essay.  In my quotation, I left off what might be a crucial clue:

“The fact that I remember this [the green great dragon problem] is possibly significant, as I do not think I ever tried to write a story again for many years, and was taken up with language.”  (Italics mine)

Tolkien had already told Auden in that letter that:

“All this only as a background to the stories, though languages and names are for me inextricable from the stories.  They are and were so to speak an attempt to give a background or a world in which my impressions of linguistic taste could have a function.  The stories were comparatively late in coming.”

So, although the capacity for world-building was always there, something was lacking—and then it appeared:

“I mentioned Finnish, because that set the rocket off in story.  I was immensely attracted by something in the air of the Kalevala, even in Kirby’s poor translation…the beginning of the legendarium, of which the Trilogy is part (the conclusion), was in an attempt to reorganize some of the Kalevala, especially the tale of Kullervo the hapless, into a form of my own.”

The rocket went off,

Middle-earth began to appear, and sceptical I began to believe.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Stay well,

Remember that Hillary built his own little world in his garden and orchard,

And know that, as ever, there’s



Paws in Posting

Paws in Posting

Yesterday, melanoma finally took Minerva, the little Siberian cat.

 She was a quiet, sweet little person, who, when she was younger, used to sleep on the back of the couch where I often work, and I’d sometimes hear a cheerful prrrrr as I was typing.  She will be much missed.

In her memory, I was thinking what I might do and, as this is a literary kind of blog, I began to think about cats in books and poems I’ve read.

Cats, as far as is currently known, have been with us in the Western world since perhaps 7500BC—in other words, from the Neolithic Era–a complete cat burial being discovered, along with a human, on the island of Cyprus (here’s a really interesting article on the subject: )

It used to be believed that the Egyptians were the original domesticators and it’s clear that, from everything from wall paintings

to large numbers of cat mummies

to numerous different goddesses with feline features like     


and the best known, Bastet,

that cats were part of Egyptian daily life.  (For a fun article on feline divinities in Egypt see: )

The first cat piece—a poem—which comes to mind, however is much later in time and is dedicated to his cat, Pangur Ban, “Pangur the White”, by the 9th-century AD Irish monk who owned her.  It appears in what is called the “Reichenauer Primer”, a collection of all sorts of information, like grammar texts and Latin hymns, but it also contains poems in Old Irish, including this one.  Here’s the page with “Pangur Ban” on the left-hand side, at the bottom. 

And here’s the first English translation, by Whitley Stokes and John Strachan, from 1903:

I and Pangur Bán, each of us two at his special art:
his mind at hunting (mice), my own mind is in my special craft.
I love to rest—better than any fame—at my booklet with diligent science:
not envious of me is Pangur Bán: he himself loves his childish art.
When we are—tale without tedium—in our house, we two alone,
we have—unlimited (is) feat-sport—something to which to apply our acuteness.
It is customary at times by feat of valour, that a mouse sticks in his net,
and for me there falls into my net a difficult dictum with hard meaning.
His eye, this glancing full one, he points against the wall-fence:
I myself against the keenness of science point my clear eye, though it is very feeble.
He is joyous with speedy going where a mouse sticks in his sharp-claw:
I too am joyous, where I understand a difficult dear question.
Though we are thus always, neither hinders the other:
each of us two likes his art, amuses himself alone.
He himself is the master of the work which he does every day:
while I am at my own work, (which is) to bring difficulty to clearness.

(This is a flat prose translation, but to give you a little flavor of the rhythm of the original, the opening goes roughly something like this—my own version–

I and Pangur Ban, my cat,

Each has craft which he is at—

To hunting mice he puts his mind

While bookish meaning’s what I find.)

I make a big hop here from the 9th century to the 18th, and what must have been a rather peculiar, but perhaps quite lovable man, the English poet, Christopher Smart (1722-1771).

His “cat work” is in a remarkable free verse poem, written between 1758 and 1763, which sat in manuscript

until its first publication, in 1939, under the odd title Rejoice in the Lamb:  A Song from Bedlam.  “Bedlam” is shorthand for a series of London-area asylums for the mentally disturbed, originally part of the medieval Priory of Our Lady of Bethlehem, and located at Bishopsgate, just beyond London’s wall. 

Here is its incarnation at the time of the composition of Smart’s poem.

Smart had, indeed, been committed to an asylum–not to this one, but rather to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics,

but the point was being clearly made by the editor, W.F. Stead, that this was a poem composed by someone possibly not in his right mind.  There is scholarly argument as to why Smart was in any asylum, but, luckily for us, he was not alone, as his cat, Jeoffry accompanied him and his observations of Jeoffry in the manuscript of Jubilate Agno (Smart’s title) form the basis of our second selection.  It’s a very long passage, so I’ll only include an excerpt, but point you to this website, where you will find the whole manuscript and all the lines about Jeoffry in Fragment B, 4:

“For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.

For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.

For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.

For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.

For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.

For he rolls upon prank to work it in.

For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.

For this he performs in ten degrees.

For first he looks upon his fore-paws to see if they are clean.

For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.

For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the fore paws extended.

For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.

For fifthly he washes himself.

For Sixthly he rolls upon wash.

For Seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.

For Eighthly he rubs himself against a post.

For Ninthly he looks up for his instructions.

For Tenthly he goes in quest of food.”

For me, there is a playfulness in this and in the other lines which suggests that, if Smart was mad, he still retained both a powerful mind and a great creativity, besides a deep affection for his cat, viewing him as much a fellow creature in the world as the anonymous Irish monk saw Pangur Ban.

But madness brings us to a third literary–Victorian–cat.

This is, of course, the Cheshire Cat from Lewis Carroll/C. L. Dodgson’s (1832-1898)

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865),

in which the cat makes several appearances, each time both mocking and disturbing.

“ The Cat only grinned when it saw
Alice. It looked good-natured, she
thought; still it had very long claws
and a great many teeth, so she felt that
it ought to be treated with respect.
‘Cheshire Puss,’ she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether
it would like the name; however, it only grinned a little wider. ‘Come, it’s pleased
so far,’ thought Alice, and she went on, ‘would you tell me, please, which way
I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where – ’ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
‘ – so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.
‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’
Alice felt that this could not be
denied, so she tried another question,
‘What sort of people live about here?’
‘In that direction,’ the Cat said,
waving its right paw round, ‘lives
a Hatter; and in that direction,’ wav-
ing the other paw, ‘lives a March
Hare. Visit either you like: they’re
both mad.’
‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice re-
‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat, ‘we’re all mad
here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.
‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come
Alice didn’t think that proved it at all; however, she went
on, ‘And how do you know that you’re mad?’
‘To begin with,’ said the Cat, ‘a dog’s not mad. You
grant that?’
‘I suppose so,’ said Alice.
‘Well, then,’ the Cat went on, ‘you see, a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags
its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when
I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.’
‘I call it purring, not growling,’ said Alice.
‘Call it what you like,’ said the Cat, ‘Do you play croquet with the Queen
‘I should like it very much,’ said Alice, ‘but I haven’t been invited yet.’
‘You’ll see me there,’ said the Cat and vanished.
Alice was not much surprised at this, she was getting so used to queer things
happening. While she was looking at the place where it had been, it suddenly
appeared again.
‘By-the-bye, what became of the baby?’ said the Cat, ‘I’d nearly forgotten to
‘It turned into a pig,’ Alice quietly said, just as if it had come back in a natural
‘I thought it would,’ said the Cat and vanished again.
Alice waited a little, half expecting to see it again, but it did not appear, and
after a minute or two she walked on in the direction in which the March Hare was
said to live. ‘I’ve seen hatters before,’ she said to herself, ‘the March Hare will be
much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad – at

least not so mad as it was in March.’ As she said this, she looked up, and there
was the Cat again, sitting on a branch of a tree.
‘Did you say pig or fig?’ said the Cat.
‘I said pig,’ replied Alice, ‘and I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and van-
ishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy.’
‘All right,’ said the Cat; and this
time it vanished quite slowly, begin-
ning with the end of the tail, and
ending with the grin which remained
some time after the rest of it had gone.
‘Well! I’ve often seen a cat with-
out a grin,’ thought Alice, ‘but a grin
without a cat! It’s the most curious
thing I ever saw in my life!’ “

(Apologies for the odd placement on the page—I had hoped to include the illustrations, which are set into the text, but I’m afraid that my cut-and-paste appears to have been heavier on the cut than the paste!  Here’s a LINK, by the way, to a painstaking digital version of that first, 1865 edition: )

If we jump from the Victorians to the 20th century, there are lots of possibilities:

George Herriman’s (1880-1944)           

surreal Krazy Kat comic strip from 1913 to 1944

or Don Marquis’ (1878-1937) 

newspaper column chronicle from 1916 to the 1930s of the free-verse poet–and cockroach–Archy and his girlfriend, Mehitabel, the cat, a reincarnation of Cleopatra.

We might even include T.S. Eliot’s (1888-1965)

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939),

but I want to end with one more item from the 20th century.  It’s a remark of Gandalf’s about Aragorn, which I hope will be true as well of Minerva, as she finds her way perhaps to the goddess Bastet and a new rebirth:

“He will not go astray—if there is any path to find.  He has led us in here against our fears, but he will lead us out again, at whatever cost to himself.  He is surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Beruthiel.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 4, “A Journey in the Dark”)

As ever, thanks for reading.

Stay well,

Remember that all cats are not, indeed, grey, in the dark,

And know, as well, that there will be




As always, dear readers, welcome.

In my last, I was discussing Tolkien’s

reading as mentioned in his comments to the draft of an interview with him in The Daily Telegraph Magazine for 22 March, 1958.

In a footnote to his comments, JRRT mentions that he particularly enjoyed the historical novels of “Mary Renault” (her pen name–she was actually Eileen Mary Challans, 1905-1983).

Tolkien began by writing:

“I read quite a lot—or more truly, try to read many books.”

and then adds in parentheses:  “(notably so-called Science Fiction and Fantasy)”, which he footnotes as “I enjoy the S.F. of Isaac Azimov.” (from Letters, 377—excerpts from all of his comments appear on pages 372-378)

Isaac Asimov (the correct spelling–1920-1992),

was actually Dr. Isaac Asimov, Professor of Biochemistry at Boston University, but also the author numerous novels, in particular three series,

Foundation (1951-1993),

Galactic Empire (1950-1952)

and Robot (1954-1985)

over 380 short stories, as well as other works. 

As Tolkien isn’t specific, and Asimov was prolific, it’s probably impossible to know, at the present time, which books by Asimov Tolkien enjoyed.  I find it a little odd, however, that, when he mentions Science Fiction, JRRT doesn’t include the work of his friend and encourager, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963),

who, between 1938 and 1945, produced his own trilogy:  Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), and That Hideous Strength (1945).

As well, although Tolkien wasn’t specific in his mention of Asimov, Lewis has given us a few clues to his Science Fiction reading in an essay, “On Science Fiction”, which appears in the posthumous collection Of Other Worlds (1966) (Here’s a LINK to your own copy: )

For me, Lewis is the kind of writer with whom you may disagree but, because he never writes anything without quiet wit and deep thoughtfulness, you read because you may disagree and therefore can learn more about what you know—or think you do.

In this essay, Lewis makes distinctions among subgenres, mentioning

1. novels set in the future—and he further subdivides those into

 a. works which are imaginatively set in time to come, in which differences from the present are important to the narrative (and he condemns the author who, having presented a future as a backdrop, “then proceeds to develop an ordinary love-story, spy-story, wreck-story, or crime-story”, suggesting that such writers are “Displaced Persons—commercial authors who did not really want to write science fiction at all, but who availed themselves of its popularity by giving a veneer of science fiction to their normal kind of work”)

 b. works which are “satiric or prophetic”, using that future to reflect upon the consequences of present actions

2. that which Lewis calls “the fiction of Engineers”, explaining:

It is written by people who are primarily interested in space‑travel, or in other undiscovered techniques, as real possibilities in the actual universe. They give us in imaginative form their guesses as to how the thing might be done.”

3. a third whose motive Lewis is at some pains to describe, the essence being that the author, living in a world in which elements like science and exploration have removed the marvelous from the everyday around us, employs fiction to take readers to places of wonder or terror.  As he puts it:

 It is not difficult to see why those who wish to visit strange regions in search of such beauty, awe, or terror as the actual world does not supply have increasingly been driven to other planets or other stars. It is the result of increasing geographical knowledge. The less known the real world is, the more plausibly your marvels can be located near at hand. As the area of knowledge spreads, you need to go further afield: like a man moving his house further and further out into the country as the new building estates catch him up. Thus in Grimm’s Märchen, stories told by peasants in wooded country, you need only walk an hour’s journey into the next forest to find a home for your witch or ogre.”

Lewis then subdivides this genre, although confessing that:

But here sub-species and sub-sub-species break out in baffling multitude. The impossible—or things so immensely improbable that they have, imaginatively, the same status as the impossible—can be used in literature for many different purposes.”

Those purposes might include:

 a. “It may represent the intellect, almost completely free from emotion, at play.

 b. “the impossible may be simply a postulate to liberate farcical consequences

 c. “Sometimes it is a postulate which liberates consequences very far from comic

4. “Eschatological”—“This kind gives an imaginative vehicle to speculations about the ultimate destiny of  our species.

So far, these subgenres are clearly defined.  The last Lewis discusses seems more impressionistic. 

5. “in the next type (and the last I shall deal with) the marvelous is in the grain of the whole work. We are, throughout, in another world. What makes that world valuable is not, of course, mere multiplication of the marvelous either for comic effect… or for mere astonishment… but its quality, its flavor. If good novels are comments on life, good stories of this sort (which are very much rarer) are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience.

But when he begins to list works which, to his mind, fit this category, the essay might better have been called “Fantasy/Science Fiction”, since the list includes works like The Odyssey,  “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, and even The Lord of the Rings.  There are a certain number of actual Science Fiction works scattered throughout the essay, however, and, as one, David Lindsay’s (1876-1945)

A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)

JRRT once wrote that he had read “with avidity” (Letters, 34), we might imagine at least some of the others might have appeared on Tolkien’s shelves or at least on his library card.  Here’s a list in the order the books (and occasional short story or novella) appear in the text (more or less—I group more than one work by the same author together—I’ve also included LINKS to any work out of copyright):

John Collier (1901-1980), Tom’s A-Cold (1933)

George Orwell (Eric Blair) (1903-1950), Nineteen Eighty-four (1949)

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), Brave New World (1932)

Jules Verne (1828-1905), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869-70)

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008), Prelude to Space (1951); Childhood’s End (1953)

H.G. Wells (1866-1946), “The Land Ironclads” (1903) ( ); The Sleeper Awakes (1899/1910) ( ) ; The Time Machine (1895) ( )  ; The First Men in the Moon (1901) ( )

Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950), Last and First Men (1930)

Edwin Abbott Abbott (1808-1882), Flatland (1884)   ( )

Charles Williams (1886-1945), Many Dimensions (1931)

W.H. Hodgson (1877-1918), The Night Land (1912)     (  )   ,

“Ray Bradbury’s stories” (unspecified)

If you take these as “recommended by Lewis” and you haven’t read some, or even any of them, why not start at the top and read all the way down?  Here’s a great place to do it–

And thanks, as always, for reading this.

Stay well,

Remember—use bookmarks—no dog-earing!

And know that, as ever, there’s



Fan Mail

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

In the March 22, 1968 issue of The Daily Telegraph Magazine, you will find an interview with Tolkien.

It’s not a very good piece—being very much of its time:  surface-y and obviously desperate to sound “hip”–but with a few interesting quotations from JRRT.  (Here’s a reprint from a later issue—2015–so that you can read it and judge for yourself: )  What I find much more interesting are Tolkien’s original comments on the draft of the interview, which you will find on pages 372-378 of Carpenter’s The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

It’s clear from Tolkien’s comments that in 1967, when the interview was conducted, he was not a happy man.  As he says, referring to his current home, but easily read as a broader statement:

“I am caught here in acute discomfort; but the dislocation of a removal and the rearrangement of my effects cannot be contemplated, until I have completed my contracted work.  When and if I do so, if I am still in health, I hope to go away to an address that will appear in no directory or reference book.”  (Letters, 373)

Among those comments is this:

“I read quite a lot—or more truly, try to read many books…But I seldom find any modern books that hold my attention.”

To which he added this footnote:

“Above these [other works], I was recently deeply engaged in the books of Mary Renault; especially the two about Theseus, The King Must Die, and The Bull from the Sea.”

Mary Renault (1905-1983),

who was actually Eileen Mary Challans, was originally a writer of contemporary fiction, but who, from 1956 to 1981, produced a series of historical novels set in the classical Greek past, both mythical, as in the two books mentioned by Tolkien, and historical, with volumes in which Socrates, Plato, the 6th-century poet Simonides, and Alexander the Great appear.

Although I enjoy them all, my personal favorites of these are The Mask of Apollo (1966),

which recreates the world of early Greek drama, and The Praise Singer (1978),

which follows the life of the ancient Greek poet, Simonides of Keos (c.556-468BC).

Historical novels in English literature might be said to stretch all the way back to writers like Thomas Malory (c.1415-1471), with La Morte d’Arthur,

(This is a page from Caxton’s original edition of 1485)

or maybe to Horace Walpole’s (1717-1797)

(with his crazily wonderful “castle”, Strawberry Hill, in the background)

 pre-Romantic “gothic story” of The Castle of Otranto (1764),

but perhaps a firmer claim might be that of Jane Porter (1776-1850)’s

extremely popular novel of 1810, The Scottish Chiefs about the life of the Scottish independence fighter, William Wallace (c1270-1305), a caricatured version of which appears in M Gibson’s Braveheart.  (If you’re a fan of this movie, I apologize for what I hope is unaccustomed harshness, but the actual Wallace was a southern Scottish knight, who didn’t wear kilts or paint his face blue and would have been very surprised to see himself so depicted.)

(the first American edition of 1812)

And I can’t resist adding the 1921 edition,

with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), for those very illustrations.  Here are the endpapers, just to give you an idea–      

Here’s the LINK so that you can own your own copy:

As the Porter novel was published in 1810, it actually pre-dated Sir Walter Scott’s (1771-1832)

1814 novel, Waverley,

with its complex and dramatic story of the last Jacobite rebellion of 1745-46,

although I would bet that Scott, probably now not read outside specialty English courses, is, at present, the better-known.

Scott’s succeeding historical novels, in fact, seemed to have opened the proverbial flood gates, even inspiring beginning authors from across the ocean as, only seven years after Waverley, James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851),

produced the first successful American historical novel, The Spy, set during the American Revolution,

beginning a career which would make him wealthy and well-known, not only in the US, but in Europe, as well. 

And, beyond Cooper, there was a full century of historical fiction, including authors like George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as a host of people who are now only names, at best.

(For an interesting, but too short, piece on the multitude of such authors, see:   )

With the 20th century, the number of books set in the past—whether Robert Graves’ Julio-Claudian Rome or Kenneth Roberts’ 18th-century America, among nearly-countless others, can appear quite overwhelming and this leads me back to Tolkien’s quotation:  “I read quite a lot—or more truly, try to read many books…But I seldom find any modern books that hold my attention.”

His explanation for this combines being “under ‘inner’ pressure to complete my own work—and because [as he states in the interview] ‘I am looking for something I can’t find.’ “

And yet he could be “deeply engaged in the books of Mary Renault”. 

He provides no explanation for this.  We might guess that in the two Theseus novels, Renault depicts a troubled hero in a world of myth and speculate about Frodo as another such figure, but, that is just that, a guess.

And yet there is one more bit of the Tolkien quotation which I haven’t cited.

In the interview published in 1968, there is this:

“Any hobbit would trust this man, any dragon quail before him, any elf name him friend.  Effortlessly, he compels you to admire as much as–and herein lies his charm–he clearly admires himself.”

In his comments on the manuscript draft of the interview, just after his mentioning his engagement with novels by Renault, Tolkien adds:

“A few days ago I actually received a card of appreciation from her; perhaps the piece of ‘Fan-mail’ that gives me most pleasure.”

Might we say that, along with the solid literary pleasure of The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, there was the added pleasure that he was admiring the work of someone who admired his work?

Thanks for reading, as always.

Stay well,

Remember that you, too, are in history,

And know that, as ever, there’s



Marcho and Hengist and… Romulus?

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

At the end of the 4th century AD, the westernmost Roman province, Britannia, was in serious trouble.

Founded after a long conquest in the 1st century AD,

it had gradually become stable, in part because there were Roman military outposts throughout the province,

not to mention the 90 miles of wall which separated the province from its not always friendly neighbors to the north.

Stability—as well as security—came with the garrisons of such places, however,

and, late in the 4th century, these were being withdrawn.

It had really started with Magnus Maximus (c.335-388AD),

a general who would become emperor of the West in 383AD, in part with the aid of troops which he had withdrawn from those garrisons.

A second would-be emperor, who called himself “Constantine III” (?-411AD),

drew even further upon the troops in Britain in 406AD, seemingly pulling out the last of the regulars.

Britannia had already been suffering from coastal raids by pirates and Germanic peoples and the later Roman government had constructed a number of coastal defenses, the so-called “Saxon Shore Forts”,

but, without those troops, Britannia was about to be on her own when it came to defense.  The last straw came about 410AD, when the Western emperor, Honorius (384-423AD),

sent a letter (an “imperial rescript”), which appears to reply to an appeal by the province for help, in which he addressed the leaders of the cities (he calls them “civitates”)–rather than his own government’s officials, which looks like a bad sign–telling them that they need to take up arms themselves, implying that no imperial soldiers will be sent.

This, and what came before it, plunged Britannia into an era of raids from several directions,

including Ireland,

the north of England,

and Germanic tribesmen from the east.

Amidst this chaos, we have mention of a local king, Vortigern, who, with the idea of “set a thief to catch a thief” hired some Germanic invaders who’ve been living on coast to add muscle to his own fighters.

These mercenaries were led by two brothers, called “Hengist” and “Horsa”

and Vortigern soon regretted his offer, as Hengist and Horsa sent for their relatives from across the North Sea and, within a few years, southern and central Britain were overrun with Germanic peoples.

Magnus Maximus, Constantius III, and Honorius were real people, from the historical record.  Vortigern, Hengist, and Horsa are from a very murky period in early British history and may be nothing more than a way to explain the explosion of Germanic colonization of southern Britain in the next couple of centuries.

In Tolkien commentaries, Hengist and Horsa and their part in Germanicizing Britain are often equated with this:

“About this time legend among the Hobbits first becomes history with a reckoning of years.  For it was in the one thousand six hundred and first year of the Third Age that the Fallohide brothers, Marcho and Blanco, set out from Bree; and having obtained permission from the high king at Fornost, they crossed the brown river Baranduin with a great following of Hobbits.  They passed over the Bridge of Stonebows…and they took all the land beyond to dwell in, between the river and the Far Downs.” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, I, “Concerning Hobbits”)

This was, of course, the founding of the Shire

and thus, it is suggested, Marcho and Blanco equal Hengist and Horsa, two sets of brothers involved in creating new settlements—but I’m not so sure.

That JRRT associated the Hobbits with the mercenaries is possible, of course—after all, Tolkien would certainly have been well aware of early British history, but I would add another possible duo, one of which he had known since his first days studying Latin at King Edward’s School in Birmingham:  the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus.

If you’re not familiar with their story, in brief it goes like this:

Their mother was a priestess, Rhea Silvia, and their father may have been the Roman war god, Mars.

Their grandfather, Numitor, had been the king of Alba Longa, the forerunner of Rome, but had been forced out of power by his brother, Amulius.  When his grandnephews, Romulus and Remus were born, Amulius saw them as a potential threat, and so he had them put into a basket and dropped into the Tiber, thus—or so he hoped—removing the kin blood guilt he would have suffered had he killed them himself.

The god of the Tiber, however, was on the side of the family of the rightful king, and the basket was washed ashore, where the twins were adopted by a local she wolf.

They were then discovered by a local shepherd and raised among the flocks, only to be discovered, in time, as the missing princes.  Their wicked great uncle was overthrown and their grandfather was restored to the throne, but the restless boys, instead of waiting to inherit the throne, set out to found their own city.  They later quarreled and Romulus killed Remus,

and so Romulus alone was the builder of Rome.

But why add Romulus and Remus to this foundation myth?

The land which became the Shire, although part of the northern realm of Gondor, was abandoned when the Hobbits arrived, empty of all people, although the East Road and the Great Bridge survived and were still in use (part of the King’s grant to the Hobbits had included the obligation of keeping them in repair—The Lord of the Rings, Prologue I, “Concerning Hobbits”).  Romulus and Remus, like the Hobbit brothers, left the inhabited part of Latium and their grandfather’s city, just as the Hobbits left Bree, to create a new settlement on empty land.  (For more on this, see Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, Book 1, Sections 3-7—here’s a LINK so that you can refer to it yourself: )  Thus, like Marcho and Blanco, Romulus and Remus were founders, characters Tolkien would have known about from his early teens.

In contrast, Hengist and Horsa were leaders of a violent invasion of land which had been settled long before the Roman arrival in 43BC and still was, in the early 5th century, AD.  They were conquerors, then, not founders, and thus perhaps less likely models.  So far as I know, however—at least from the Letters—JRRT makes no connection between the Hobbits and the Germanic invaders or the proto-Roman twins, so perhaps we can imagine both as (rather distant) models for the founders of the Shire?

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Stay well,

Be careful whom you invite to help you with invaders,


Know that there’s always



Ringing False (3)


although he declares himself “Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

is not so wise as he thinks.  In his lust for the Ring, he has made a number of mistakes.  In one conversation with Gandalf, he has:

1. revealed a deep jealousy of his fellow Maia, saying scornfully, “…one so cunning and so wise, wandering about the lands, and concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not.”

2. mocked a second Maia, Radagast, as “the Bird-tamer, Radagast the Simple!  Radagast the Fool!”

3. laid bare his own desire not just to provide counsel for the people of Middle-earth against Sauron which was the purpose for which he had been sent there, but to control them:  “…but our time is at hand:  the world of Men, which we must rule.  But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.”

4. made clear that he is not only in contact with Sauron, but admires and fears him:  “A new Power is rising.  Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all.  There is no hope left in Elves or dying Numenor.  This then is one choice before you, before us.  We may join with that Power.  It would be wise, Gandalf.  There is hope that way.  Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it.”

5. given away the fact that he has been spying on the Shire:  “For I have many eyes in my service, and I believe that you know where this precious thing now lies.  Is it not so?  Or why do the Nine ask for the Shire, and what is your business there?”

And, in admitting to his suspicion that the Ring may be somehow tied to the Shire, Saruman also admits to his own desire for the Ring:  “Why not?  The Ruling Ring?  If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us.”

Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

In the last two postings, I’ve been playing a game which historians and fantasy/sci-fi writers call “What If?”

In this game, they take a known situation:  that, for instance, the Nazis never invaded England, but, in Len Deighton’s (1929-) 1978 novel,


they now occupy the country. 

Now we’ve come to “What if Saruman got the Ring?”

It’s interesting that Saruman has already so strongly identified himself with Sauron that he’s called himself “Ring-maker” and, as Gandalf has noticed, “He wore a ring on his finger.”   What Saruman hasn’t realized, however, is that Sauron is well aware of Saruman’s thoughts on the subject of becoming the new Sauron, even without the Ring, as is evident in the speech of Sauron’s Orc captain, Grishnakh.   He has been arguing with Saruman’s Uruk-hai leader, Ugluk, on what’s best to do with Merry and Pippin.  Ugluk has tried to take command, saying, “We are the servants of Saruman the Wise, the White Hand…”  Grishnakh then makes a very interesting reply:

“You have spoken more than enough, Ugluk…I wonder how they would like it in Lugburz [the Barad-dur]…They might ask where his strange ideas came from.  Did they come from Saruman, perhaps?  Who does he think he is, setting up on his own with his filthy white badges?  They might agree with me, with Grishnakh their trusted messenger; and I Grishnakh say this:  Saruman is a fool, and a dirty treacherous fool.  But the Great Eye is on him.”  (The Two Towers, Book Three,  Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)

That Great Eye is more than on him—Saruman is also unaware that he’s being manipulated by Sauron through the Orthanc Palantir

as we hear in that conversation which so reveals his true self and intent to Gandalf.  Is he really speaking for himself when he launches into what he believes is a logical laying-out of the path both he and Gandalf should take?   As Gandalf describes him:

“He drew himself up then and began to declaim, as if he were making a speech long rehearsed.  ‘The Elder Days are gone.  The Middle Days are passing.  The Younger Days are beginning.  The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand:  the world of Men, which we must rule.  But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.’ “

Elrond has said that the Ring can only be wielded by one with great power already, but that “It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil…The very desire of it corrupts the heart.  Consider Saruman.  If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself up on Sauron’s throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

And it’s clear that this is Saruman’s plan, even as he tries to persuade Gandalf to join him, sharing joint custody of the Ring, to which Gandalf wisely replies:

“Saruman…only one hand at a time can wield the One, and you know that well, so do not trouble to say we.”

Saruman is, unknowingly, already corrupt and much less in control than he believes and I wonder if, once he had the Ring, a winged Nazgul would appear and soon either his head and/or the Ring would be on its way to its true master in Lugburz.

Immune to Saruman’s combination of wheedling and threats, Gandalf has refused either to join Saruman or confirm his suspicions about the Ring, declaring, “But I would not give it, nay, I would not give even news of it to you, now that I learn your mind.  You were head of the White Council, but you have unmasked yourself at last.”

And, when offered the Ring himself by Frodo,

his reaction is the very opposite of what we might expect of Saruman’s—and here we see the answer to “What if Gandalf got the Ring?”:

“ ‘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 as if lit by a fire within.  ‘Do not tempt me!  For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)

Saruman would gladly grasp the Ring so that he—and Gandalf, perhaps, at this point, since Saruman is still unsure of Gandalf’s response—would achieve “the high and ultimate purpose:  Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish…There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.”  Or so he says.  In fact, his “high and ultimate purpose” is sheer mastery:  “Why not?  The Ruling Ring?  If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us.”

In contrast, Gandalf refuses the Ring because “…the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and a desire to do good.” 

And Galadriel’s rejection is much like Gandalf’s:

“ ‘…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!’

She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illumined her alone and left all else dark…Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! She was shrunken:  a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.

‘I pass the test,’ she said.  ‘I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.’ “ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 7, “The Mirror of Galadriel”)

Galadriel has already had her own “What if?”, telling Frodo:

“I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer.  For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands, and behold!  It was brought within my grasp.”

But she, like Gandalf, and like Elrond, knows that Sauron’s Ring is nothing more than a kind of poison, offering power, but taking control and corrupting as it does so.  As she says:  “The evil that was devised long ago works on in many ways, whether Sauron himself stands or falls.”

I began this little series with Faramir’s rejection of the Ring, even though he was unsure of what exactly it was:

“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”)

Bilbo, with Gandalf’s help, let the Ring go.  Frodo tried to give it to both Gandalf and Galadriel, and each refused.  Saruman coveted it, but probably could never have kept it, at the best surrendering it to its rightful owner, at the worst ruined and driven mad, like Gollum, and still losing it in the end, just as Gollum did.  I would like, however, to add perhaps the oddest possible recipient to this list, Tom Bombadil.

Early in the story, after Tom has rescued them from Old Man Willow, he suddenly asks to see the Ring and Frodo, to his own surprise, immediately hands it to him.  And, although Frodo is a little miffed by it, Tom’s reaction is to clown with it, peeking through it, putting it on and not disappearing, even doing a little disappearing trick with it, all of which confirms something Gandalf will later say, when it’s suggested that the Ring be sent to him for safe-keeping:

“Say rather that the Ring has no power over him.  He is his own master…And if he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away.  Such things have no hold on his mind.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

It’s never clear why the Ring has no power over Tom, and a “What if?” would clearly only end in disaster, but I’ve included him because of that last remark:  “Such things have no hold on his mind.”  On the minds of good characters and bad, with Tom as the one exception, the Ring has a hold and that strong attraction lies at the center of the story, making a game of “What if?” possible.  And that’s one reason why “What if” is a good game to play.  We know what actually happens, of course, but, when we suppose different outcomes, we can gain a clearer sense of why it happens.  On the one hand, it shows us the protagonists as deeply thoughtful people, more concerned for those around them than their own power—with the strong exception of Saruman.  On the other, it points up the terrible power of the Ring that Frodo a good person, at the last minute of dropping the Ring into the Cracks of Doom, suddenly seems much closer to the Ring’s maker than to the Hobbit who has barely survived a terrible quest to erase the very thing he now declines to destroy.

As always, thanks for reading,

Stay well,

Look for yellow boots if you’re lost in the forest,

And know that, as ever, there’s



Ringing False (2)

You might say that it all started not with:

“He only needs the One; for he made that Ring himself, it is his, and he let a great part of his former power pass into it, so that he could rule all the others.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2 “The Shadow of the Past”)

but really with:

“His head was swimming, and he was far from certain even of the direction they had been going in when he had his fall.  He guessed as well as he could, and crawled along a good way, till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel.”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark”)

The author goes on to add, “It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it…” but, in fact, this—although the author himself didn’t know it in 1937—was a tremendous understatement, that finding being a turning point in more than the career of one small Hobbit.  Suppose, however, that, in the dark and in his confusion—he had just recently “bumped his head on hard rock, and remembered nothing more” after all—the “he” in that passage had missed that “tiny ring of cold metal”?

Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

In my last posting, I began to play a kind of game, enjoyed both by historians and by science fiction/fantasy writers, called “What If?”, using that tiny ring as the focus. 

Such a game produces books like the well-known If the South Had Won the Civil War, by MacKinlay Kantor (1904-1977),

first published in Look Magazine in November, 1960,

and then released as a short novel in 1961.

The possible fantasy/science fiction titles we might cite are probably endless, as “What If” now forms the basis of whole series.  In the last posting, I mentioned as a good example the classic short story by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

“A Sound of Thunder”, originally published in Collier’s magazine in 1952,

in which the death of a butterfly in the prehistoric past will change history in the 20th century.

In that previous posting, I discussed What If’s centered upon Isildur, Gollum, and Bilbo, and now I want to do what Bilbo did and pass the Ring to his heir, Frodo.

In that previous posting, I began with Faramir’s total rejection 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…”  (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 5, “The Window on the West”)

Initially, Frodo seems to have a similar reaction, saying to Gandalf:

“All the same…even if Bilbo could not kill Gollum, I wish that he had not kept the Ring.  I wish he had never found it, and that I had not got it!  Why did you let me keep it?  Why didn’t you make me throw it away, or, or destroy it?” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)

And yet, there is something terribly attractive about the thing:

“Frodo drew the Ring out of his pocket again and looked at it.  It now appeared plain and smooth, without mark or device that he could see.  The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its colour, how perfect was its roundness.  It was an admirable thing and altogether precious.  When he took it out, he had intended to fling it from him into the very hottest part of the fire.  But now he found that he could not do so, not without a great struggle.  He weighed the Ring in his hand, hesitating, and forcing himself to remember all that Gandalf had told him; and then with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away, but he found that he had put it back in his pocket.”

Gollum had had the Ring for nearly 500 years, and Bilbo had had it for about 60 years.  When Gandalf arrives at Frodo’s house, it’s been only 9 years since Bilbo left the Ring behind and Frodo’s behavior can only cause Gandalf great concern, as he says when Frodo is unable to part with it:  “You see?  Already you too, Frodo, cannot easily let it go, nor will to damage it.”

This possessiveness will only grow in time, making Frodo’s beloved kinsman, Bilbo, when he asks only to see the Ring in Rivendell, seem a monster:

“Slowly he drew it out.  Bilbo put out his hand.  But Frodo quickly drew back the Ring.  To his distress and amazement he found that he was no longer looking at Bilbo; a shadow seemed to have fallen between them, and through it he found himself eyeing a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands.  He felt a desire to strike him.”  (The Fellowhip of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 1, “Many Meetings”)

Now that Frodo has found the Ring “altogether precious”, his judgment is already so distorted that he can only see Bilbo as another Gollum, “a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands”.

With such reactions at the beginning of Frodo’s quest, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that, at the end of that terrible journey, standing at the very edge of the Ring’s destruction, we see this:

“Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.

‘I have come,’ he said.  ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do.  I will not do this deed.  The Ring is mine!’  And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 3, “Mount Doom”)

And this brings us to the What If. 

It’s clear from what Gandalf has told Frodo long before that, even he had wanted to, Frodo would be unable to reject the task of holding the Ring:

“I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.  In which case you also were meant to have it.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)

Frodo has been chosen, then, by whom and for what ultimate purpose is not clear—or Gandalf, at least, isn’t about to divulge it.  For a mysterious reason, Frodo is bound to go.  It would appear, then, that there can be no What If of “What if Frodo refused to leave the Shire?”

Instead, we have:  “What if Gollum hadn’t bitten the Ring from Frodo’s hand?”

This new imperious attitude of Frodo’s—the voice, the very formal language—seem to come from nowhere, although I would suggest that they are the ghostly echo of Isildur’s rejection of his comrades’ urging that he throw the Ring into the fire, nearly 3000 years earlier.  And, for all the tone, Frodo was only a Hobbit from the Shire, and, as Gandalf says of Gollum, “The Ring had given him power according to his stature” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”):  he could never have been a great power in Middle-earth and, would probably, like Gollum, have been ruined in time by the Ring, which then would have slipped from him, as it did Gollum.  As Elrond says to Boromir:

“We cannot use the Ruling Ring.  That we now know too well.  It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil.  Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

Had Frodo worn the Ring for no more than a day, however, it would have spelled ultimate disaster for the West.  Even as he totters on the edge both of the Cracks of Doom and his refusal to destroy it, Gandalf, Aragorn, and the meager forces of Gondor and Rohan are surrounded and about to be destroyed by the far superior numbers of Sauron just outside the Morannon.

 The destruction of the Ring means the destruction of Sauron and the panicked flight of his armies.

Without that destruction at that very moment in the story, Sauron will overwhelm the forces of the West and what happens next to Frodo and the Ring will become nothing more than a footnote in Sauron’s history of his triumph.  This is a terrible “What If” and it makes me even more thankful for Gandalf’s remark about Gollum back at the story’s beginning: 

“And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring.  My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not least.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)

But, as this is just that, a “What If”, we can breathe a sigh of relief and, in the third and final part of this set of postings, we’ll consider a few more possibilities, when those with the great power Elrond describes as necessary to wield the Ring are offered the opportunity—or try to make it—to possess the Ring.

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Stay well,

Always choose wisely,

And know that, as ever, there’s



Ringing False (1)

Welcome, as always, dear readers.

Faramir (always one of my favorite characters)

is adamant:

“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…”  (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 5, “The Window on the West”)

He means The Ring, of course,

(a John Howe—I like the fact that it’s a painting, not a photographic image)

and, as Frodo is standing in front of him, the ring in a thin chain around his neck, when Faramir says this, it doesn’t seem like posturing:  unlike others in The Lord of the Rings, he truly doesn’t want it.

There are others like him, who fear what it might do to them, one who doesn’t seem even to understand what it is, as well as those who lust after it, for various reasons and this brings me to today’s subject.

I am a respecter of fan fiction.  I know that there are those who condemn it, since some of it is not at the same literary level as the original work upon which the fan fiction writers base their creations.  In my view, that may be true, but it misses several important points:

1. young writers have imitated the work of their elders for centuries and, as a good imitation means close attention to the admired original, such imitation can act as a kind of writing school, in which a beginner who pays that attention can learn a good deal about the craft of writing.

2. fan fiction shows not only a deep affection for an author’s work, but a hunger for more of the same and here we see the Inklings, and Tolkien and CS Lewis, in particular,

famously saying that, having read all they could find which they liked, resolved to create more.  Imagine, then, that the fan fiction writer of today, having learned from what she/he loves to read, will now make plans to add to the pool of what she/he enjoys.  And, if the person has talent, like Tolkien and Lewis, as well as passion, who knows but she/he will be inspired to create works which the rest of us will enjoy as much as the original inspirations?

That being said, I’m not about to produce for you a short story entitled “Falling from the Bridge”, in which we see Boromir and Faramir’s failed defense of Osgiliath.  Instead, just as in fan fiction in which characters and situations are borrowed from earlier authors, inspired by Faramir’s rejection of the Ring, I want to borrow some of JRRT’s characters and employ them in that kind of speculative historical fiction called “What If?” 

A very famous story in this genre is Ray Bradbury’s (1920-2012)

 “A Sound of Thunder”, originally published in Collier’s magazine for 28 June, 1952,

and republished in Bradbury’s 1953 collection The Golden Apples of the Sun.

If you aren’t familiar with this story, here’s a LINK so that you can read it (and it’s well worth reading, which I think is true for just about anything Bradbury wrote):

For our purposes, the most important element is that a wealthy man buys the chance, via a time-traveling firm, to hunt a dinosaur. He has been warned that the firm is anxious about potential changes to the future, should something unpredictable happen in the past, and so the dinosaur with which he’s provided has been seen to have been killed in the near future:  therefore, it’s believed safe to shoot him just before his actual death.  Things go awry, however, when the wealthy man first loses his nerve, then goes off the specially-engineered metal pathway which keeps the time-travelers off the actual earth.  When the travelers return to the present, they find that things have changed in their own time and the wealthy man finds the explanation on the sole of his boot, where there is a dead butterfly from that far past.

My “what if”, then, is about the Ring and what might happen if, rather than it melt in the fires of Mt Doom,

(rather than use a more dramatic image, I’ve thought it interesting to use this by Pauline Baynes, who illustrated both some of Tolkien’s work as well as, at Tolkien’s recommendation, Lewis’ Narnia books)

it fell (literally) into other hands than Gollum’s.

(this is by one of my heroes among the many excellent Tolkien illustrators, Ted Nasmith, who often picks scenes from all over JRRT’s works, as well as depicting them with such flair)

Its first hand was, of course, Sauron’s, until Isildur defeated him and cut the ring from his fiery finger.

(this is by “Tulikoura”, who describes himself on his website as someone who loves traditional illustration, and here’s a LINK to that site so that you can see his other work: )

And here’s our first—and very easy—What If:  what if, instead of keeping the Ring, saying that it was “weregild [blood price] for my father, and my brother” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”), Isildur had tossed the Ring into the fire, as his surviving companions urged him?  As happened when the Ring was finally destroyed, I presume that Isildur and the others would have felt that:

“…the earth rocked beneath their feet.  Then rising swiftly up, far above the Towers of the Black Gate, high above the mountains, a vast soaring darkness sprang into the sky, flickering with fire…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 spectacular Nasmith)

Should this have happened, The Hobbit might still have occurred—after all, although Bilbo uses the Ring to avoid goblins and forest elves and even Smaug, we might imagine him proving his developing burglarious skills by normal means.  After all, the author says of Hobbits: 

“They possessed from the first the art of disappearing swiftly and silently, when large folk whom they do not wish to meet come blundering by; and this art they have developed until to Men it may seem magical.  But Hobbits have never, in fact, studied magic of any kind, and their elusiveness is due solely to professional skills that heredity and practice, and a close friendship with the earth, have rendered inimitable by bigger and clumsier races.” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue I:  “Concerning Hobbits”)

As for The Lord of the Rings, well, no Ring, no lord, even though Sauron was well on his way to a come-back in the later Third Age, even without the Ring.

(the Hildebrandts at their wildest)

After the Ring had betrayed Isildur to the orcs, however,

it was acquired in time by Gollum, but, for all its potential power on the hand of its maker (after all the Barad-dur itself was founded upon that power—The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”), Gollum uses it for nothing more than eavesdropping and relatively petty nastiness, revealing, as Gandalf says, something about the true nature of what he had found:  “The ring had given him power according to his stature.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)  Thus, had Gollum never lost it, he would never have been anything more than he already was—a sneaking nobody deep under the Misty Mountains (although he might have slipped up on Bilbo in the dark and The Hobbit would have ended rather abruptly).

Bilbo did find the Ring, however, but, like Gollum, although in a less sinister way, it’s simply part of a disappearing act, even the last time he uses it, at his joint birthday party with Frodo.  It originally saved him from Gollum in that role, but that may have been Bilbo’s ultimate salvation, as well, as Gandalf replies to Frodo’s cry, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”:

“Pity?  It was Pity that stayed his hand.  Pity, and Mercy:  not to strike without need.  And he has been well rewarded, Frodo.  Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so.  With Pity.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)

But what would have happened, had Bilbo kept the Ring?  Would that earlier act of mercy have continued to save him?  Two possibilities, perhaps stages of the same fate, might occur, Gollum being our example.  In the first stage, as Gandalf tells Frodo:

“But still the thing was eating up his mind, of course, and the torment had become almost unbearable…He hated the dark, and he hated light more:  he hated everything, and the Ring most of all.”

That this was already happening to Bilbo is suggested by his remark to Gandalf:

“…And yet it would be a relief in a way not to be bothered with it any more.  It has been so growing on my mind lately.  Sometimes I have felt it was like an eye looking at me.  And I am always wanting to put it on and disappear, don’t you know; or wondering if it is safe and pulling it out to make sure.  I tried locking it up, but I found I couldn’t rest without it in my pocket.  I don’t know why…” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”)

The second and final stage for Bilbo might be:

“A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo.  It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it.  At most he plays with the idea of handing it on to someone else’s care—and that only at an early stage, when it first begins to grip.”

That Ring’s eventual escape from Bilbo might appear simply as a loss—Gollum had no idea that it had slipped from his finger in The Hobbit—but it might be much worse, as happened to Isildur:  “The Ring was trying to get back to its master.  It had slipped from Isildur’s hand and betrayed him; then when a chance came it caught poor Deagol, and he was murdered…”

as Gandalf explains to Frodo.

But with our next character, Frodo, we move from the past of the Ring to the present of The Lord of the Rings, and we’ll consider more What Ifs in Ringing False (2) in the next posting.

Meanwhile, thanks, as ever, for reading,

Stay well,

Refrain from picking up small shiny objects in tunnels,

And know that, as always, there’s



The Staff of Life

(“Here is bread, which strengthens a man’s heart, and therefore called the staff of life…”

Matthew Henry, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, 1708-1710, commentary on Psalm CIV, Verse 15)

Merry and Pippin are in trouble.  Separated from their companions in their search for the missing Frodo, they tangle with a band of Orcs, witness the fall of Boromir,

and are carried off, eastwards, towards Saruman’s lair, at Isengard.

As they are driven on by the orcs, there are occasional pauses for breath and, at one point, Pippin is handed a meal:

“An Orc stooped over him, and flung him some bread and a strip of raw dried flesh.  He ate the stale grey bread hungrily, but not the meat.  He was famished but not yet so famished as to eat flesh flung to him by an Orc, the flesh of he dared not guess what creature.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)

The grey bread, in fact, may not necessarily have been grey from age—rye flour when baked into loaves can have a natural grey look—

As for the dried meat, I always think of something like South African biltong,

but Pippin is right to be suspicious, remembering the previous words of Ugluk the captain of the Uruk-hai:

“We are the servants of Saruman the Wise, the White Hand:  the Hand that gives us man’s-flesh to eat.”

As much as they often seem more like hordes of goblins (Tolkien blends goblins and Orcs together after The Hobbit)

than drilled troops, the Orcs, however, at least Saruman’s Uruk-hai, are actually war-bands of soldiers with some discipline(as Ugluk says, when some of Sauron’s Orcs complain about his plans:  “By the White Hand!  What’s the use of sending out mountain-maggots on a trip, only half trained.”)  We can imagine then that what is tossed to Pippin is actually a typical Orc military ration, containing the sorts of things which possess some nourishment, are portable, and which can keep for a long time.

Since the days of the Romans, a major issue for standing armies has been how to feed soldiers on campaign.  The Romans issued their soldiers with some basics, including grains of various sorts, which the soldiers would grind into flour in portable hand-mills

and bake into various basic forms of bread, sometimes being something like modern pita

or even so-called “campfire bread”—dough wrapped around a stick.

(for a good introduction to Roman military eating, see: )

Such large, organized, and permanent armies wouldn’t appear again in Europe until the 17th century, when monarchs like Louis XIV (1638-1715),

eager to extend their reach—and their territory—would begin to build bigger and bigger forces.

Then the same problem which challenged the Romans arose once more–how to feed armies on the march–and part of the solution was to establish depots along the major military routes, with bakeries attached, so that soldiers could be issued fresh bread every few days as they passed such depots on their way into the field.

Another possibility was to develop portable ovens, which could march along with the troops and, when they stopped, the ovens could be stoked and bread could appear for evening meals.

A third possibility would be to develop some sort of long-lasting bread, something which could be stored for long periods without losing at least some of its nutritive value.  As sailors began to make longer and longer voyages from the days of the Age of Discovery on, this was a problem for mariners as well as for soldiers and the solution was what was called “ship’s biscuit”, a hardened version of a mixture of salt, water, and flour.

With such basic ingredients, this would seem to have the potential to last forever, but there was one problem:  not only did sailors eat these cracker-like things, but so did weevils—

(Here is a little scene from Peter Weir’s wonderful film, Master and Commander, where you can see both biscuit and bugs: )

These horrible little passengers actually came from the flour out of which the biscuits were made

and can be evident in several stages, from larvae to six-legged insects.  For something on the disposal of them, see this little documentary presented by the ship’s cook of the Cutty Sark, a famous tea clipper:

Ship’s biscuit supplied sailors on long voyages.  With its alternate name of “hard tack” or “hard crackers” or, as governments called it, “army bread”, it was baked, packed,

and shipped to feed soldiers in the US Civil War.  Just like its naval cousin, it would seem to last forever, but, just like that cousin, it was prone to bugs and, just as bad, it soon became very hard on the teeth

—and this in a world where dentistry was just beginning to become a medical science (although details like scrubbing hands and instruments after each operation would only appear later—and slowly—in the 19th century).

Pippin—and Merry—were handed an Orc ration issued to its soldiers by the Sauronic or Sarumanic government, but there was an alternative in Middle-earth and both of the Hobbits had tasted it:  lembas.

Because it clearly is similar to something like hard tack, Gimli mistakes it for cram, which he describes as “such as the Dale-men make for journeys in the wild.”  He is corrected by the Elves, who tell him that it has a like purpose, “But we call it lembas or waybread, and it is more strengthening than any food made by Men, and it is more pleasant than cram, by all accounts.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 8, “Farewell to Lorien”)

More than once, we see this waybread sustaining characters, even in the worst of circumstances, as on the final, nearly-fatal, slog to Mt Doom, where the narrator says of Sam:

“As for himself, though weary and under a shadow of fear, he still had some strength left.  The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die.  It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats.  And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travelers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods.  It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.”  (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 3, “Mount Doom”)

Tolkien so believed in this inherent spiritual quality that, seeing it turned into a “food concentrate” in an early proposed film script (which he clearly hated—I think that some of the strongest language in Letters appears here), he wrote:

“We are not exploring the Moon or any other more improbable region.  No analysis in any laboratory would discover chemical properties of lembas that made it superior to other cakes of wheat-meal…In the book lembas has two functions. It is a ‘machine’ or device for making credible the long marches with little provision, in a world in which as I have said ‘miles are miles.’  But that is relatively unimportant.  It also has a much larger significance, of what one might hesitatingly call a ‘religious’ kind.”  (from a letter of June, 1958, to Forrest J. Ackerman, Letters, 274-275)

Although our breads—and they come in many different forms, from many different grains—

aren’t supplied by the Elves of Lorien, perhaps, in their ability to be the staff of our lives, we can see them as having a little of the spiritual quality of lembas?

As ever, thanks for reading,

Chew slowly and thoughtfully,

And know that, as always, there’s




For more on ship’s biscuit, see:   This is from a really interesting website, Histories of the Unexpected, in which two very bright and witty men investigate, well, just about anything.  Warning:  this site could be addicting—once you listen to one podcast, can you stop?