"The Man He Killed", Adventure, British Infantry, British Militia, Crimean War, Damrod, Fantasy, Faramir, Frodo, Haradrim, History, Lamellar, Mablung, Middle-earth, military history, Military recruiters, Napoleonic Wars, Sam Gamgee, Second Boer War, The Dynasts, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks, Tolkien, Waterloo, WWI
Welcome, as always. In this posting, we propose to suggest a connection—one, at the moment, at least, which we can’t prove—between Tolkien and the late-Victorian/Edwardian/Georgian (he was born in 1840 and died in 1928) poet/novelist, Thomas Hardy.
We begin with a quotation from The Two Towers, Chapter 4, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”. Sam and Frodo have been taken by Faramir’s rangers and, with Damrod and Mablung as their minders, they are about to sit out the ambush staged by Faramir to destroy a column of Haradrim. Unthinkingly, Sam has become an eager spectator, and:
“Then suddenly straight over the rim of their sheltering bank, a man fell, crashing through the slender trees, nearly on top of them. He came to rest in the fern a few feet away, face downward, green arrow-feathers sticking from his neck below a golden collar. His scarlet robes were tattered, his corslet of overlapping brazen plates was rent and hewn, his black plaits of hair braided with gold were drenched with blood. His brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword.”
The Haradrim are from the far south, but, wherever this man was from, he was wearing a type of armor called “lamellar”, from the Latin word, “lamella”, meaning, “a little, thin plate”, it being a diminutive of “lamina”, “a thin piece of something/a plate, leaf”. It’s a kind of protection worn over many centuries in many parts of the world. Basically, it looks like this:
It can be made, as the one described, of lamellae of bronze, or of iron, which are sewn to an underlying fabric.
So, perhaps, this dead warrior looked a bit like this:
Sam’s curiosity was quickly dampened by the sight—and it makes us wonder if what we are also seeing here is Lieutenant Tolkien’s first glimpse of a dead enemy soldier.
“It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace—“
It was this brief meditation—abruptly interrupted by the appearance of a Mumak—which reminded us of this Thomas Hardy poem, “The Man He Killed”:
The language—“nipperkin”, “ ‘list”—and the social situation depicted: “was out of work—had sold his traps” (“traps” being slang of the time for “personal possessions”)—would suggest that the speaker is a working man. Such, along with farm boys, were prime material for military recruiters
in the Victorian world in which this poem was written (1902—published in Hardy’s Time’s Laughingstocks, 1909 ). The speaker is, in his own words, however, from an earlier day. When Hardy wrote the poem, the Second Boer War (1899-1902) was just ending, but it was hardly a war in which soldiers did as the speaker says, “but ranged as infantry,/and staring face to face,/I shot at him as he at me,/and killed him in his place.” The war had begun with British infantry attacking in spread-out lines, but still very visible on the landscape and it had cost them dearly.
Their enemy—mostly all militia—that is, part-time soldiers—had dug in from the start.
British losses had taught them to do the same.
What the speaker is describing sounds much more like earlier European wars, in which soldiers stood in long lines at a narrowing distance from each other and fired. The last of these, for Britain, had been the Crimean War (1854-56).
Hardy, however, had a strong interest in the Napoleonic wars of the late-18th-early 19th-centuries, had published a massive dramatic piece, The Dynasts (1904-08), set in that period, and had even twice visited the battlefield of Waterloo (1876, 1896). Thus, we imagine that the poem’s speaker is actually describing something like this:
Had Tolkien read the Hardy poem and perhaps have even been inspired by it? Both scenes include a battlefield, a battle death, and a lingering sense of regret—although Sam hadn’t killed the man from Harad, he displays that same sense of “this was just a person, an ordinary person, once” which gives the Hardy poem its power.
As ever, we leave it to you, dear readers—what do you think?
Thanks, as ever, for reading!