Anglo-Saxon, artefacts, Balin, Beaumaris, Bladorthin, Gandalf, Girion, Hadrian's Wall, Hoard, Middle-earth, Raedwald, Ship burial, Sigeberht, spears, Staffordshire Hoard, Stonehenge, Suffolk, Sutton Hoo, The Argonath, The Hobbit, Thorin, Thror, Tolkien, weapons
Dear Readers, welcome, as ever.
If you look for the name “Bladorthin” in The Annotated Hobbit (our standard source), you will find it only once, on page 287, where Thorin and Balin discuss what they can remember of the great hoard of the Lonely Mountain.
This includes not only the usual golden items and jewels, but also what appears to have been a military consignment, “the spears that were made for the armies of the great King Bladorthin (long since dead), each had a thrice-forged head and their shafts were inlaid with cunning gold, but they were never delivered or paid for.”
Who this king was and why he was arming his men with what appear to be deluxe weapons is a mystery and probably forever unsolved. This is likewise true for the original Bladorthin, who exchanges his name for that of the head dwarf in the first drafts, Gandalf, just as the head dwarf loses his name, Gandalf, to become Thorin. Why does Tolkien make the shift?
If neither of these can be answered, perhaps we can step back a little to wonder why Bladorthin, the king, is in The Hobbit at all?
A strongly-marked feature of The Lord of the Rings is the sense of age, of great time having passed. Part of this comes from Tolkien’s own sense of history, part from living in a place where things like stone circles
and Roman fortifications
let alone more recent things, like castles
are everywhere to be seen every day.
Part of it, too, comes from Tolkien’s seemingly-unquenchable desire to add to what he had created, providing more and more and more context practically per page.
What might be seen as obsessive, or nearly, however, adds what we might call convincing texture, and in two ways: on the one hand, it makes the story that much more vivid because it’s so much more detailed, and, on the other, it gives it weight: this is not a tale of yesterday, but of a long ago, even if not a long ago from the world of the Neolithic or Romans or Edward I.
This sense of age comes from a number of elements, including not only the idea that the text has been translated from a manuscript, a handwritten text from a pre-Gutenberg age, but also from the landscape which, like Tolkien’s own mid-20th-century Britain, is full of visible reminders of the past–
In fact, not long after the publication of The Hobbit, in 1937, a major uncovering of the English Anglo-Saxon past took place near the coast, in Suffolk, at a place called Sutton Hoo. Here, a series of mounds
yielded a ship burial
with nothing short of a hoard, including such items as these pieces from a purse
and a helmet.
(And, since then, it turns out that the area is an extensive cemetery, which, though much plundered, has yielded many other finds.)
Although Tolkien doesn’t mention this discovery in his selected letters, it would be difficult to imagine that he hadn’t seen something about it: it was even featured in the US National Geographic, in the year of discovery, 1939. Unfortunately, who the man buried there was appears impossible to say, leaving one aspect unknown, and all of the valuables simply generic Anglo-Saxon. (The theory now is that he is the early 7th-c AD ruler, Raedwald, or his son/step-son, Sigeberht.)
The Hobbit, written earlier in terms of years and even earlier, perhaps, in terms of literary sophistication, has, in comparison, much less depth. Much of the backdrop is, particularly in comparison, fairy-tale flat, without all of those levelsl of history.
But then there is Bladorthin.
That mound of wealth, extending beyond the sleeping Smaug is initially described as:
“…on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light.” TH 270
This is impressive enough to wake a kind of primal greed in Bilbo:
“His heart was filled and pierced with enchantment and with the desire of dwarves; and he gazed motionless, almost forgetting the frightful guardian, at the gold beyond price and count.” TH 271
Imagine, then, that such a hoard—like Sutton Hoo, or the more recent—and astonishing—Staffordshire Hoard (see the link here)
could have names attached to some of its pieces, if not to the hoard in general. Thorin and Balin, in their reminiscing, combine general description with some specific detail, as well as identifying several one-time object owners:
“…shields made for warriors long dead; the great golden cup of Thror, two-handed, hammered and carven with birds and flowers whose eyes and petals were of jewels; coats of mail gilded and silvered and impenetrable; the necklace of Girion, Lord of Dale, made of five hundred emeralds green as grass, which he gave for the arming of his eldest son in a coat of dwarf-linked rings the like of which had never been made before, for it was wrought of pure silver to the power and strength of triple steel. But fairest of all was the great white gem, which the dwarves had found beneath the roots of the Mountain, the Heart of the Mountain, the Arkenstone of Thrain.” TH 287
Just as places in Middle-earth, by having history, are deepened, the same would be true for artefacts: not just a necklace, but Girion’s necklace, not just a golden cup, but Thror’s cup, and not just spears, but spears commissioned by Bladorthin, a king of long ago.
Thus, although Bladorthin’s history may remain a mystery outside The Hobbit, what history there is gives greater depth, narrative texture, to this early vision of Middle-earth and to the story of Bilbo, in particular.
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Erik MH said:
I read this post with particularly great interest, since I just saw some of the Sutton Hoo hoard, including that wonderful mask. Next to it at the British Museum they displayed a reconstruction of how it would have looked at the time, which really brought home how sumptuous it is.
With regard to Tolkien, I’ve often wondered whether he was familiar with Pooh-Bah’s “corroborative detail intended to give verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative,” of which _The Lord of the Rings_ is rife, as you noted.
Thanks for calling attention to Bladorthin, destined to remain even more enigmatic than the cats of Queen Berúthiel.