Achilles, armour, Battle of Bannockburn, Eurybates, flailing and winnowing, Heraldry, Heralds, Hermes, kerykeion, Lakedaimonia, lambda, Medieval, Mouth of Sauron, Robert de Septvans, Robert the Bruce, Roger de Trumpington, Sir Henry de Bohun, Spartans, tabard, Talthybius, The Black Gate, The Illiad, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, White Tree of Gondor
Welcome, as always, dear readers.
There is a moment in the film of The Return of the King which has always puzzled us. The Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dur has appeared outside the Morannon with taunts and with what appears to be disconcerting news about Frodo.
In response, Aragorn kills him. Even if you had never seen a movie with knights in it so that you would know that this was a herald or messenger of some sort and that there are rules about such people, there are modern parallels—flags of truce, even the silent protection offered to diplomats—to make you think that this was hardly proper behavior for a king.
If we look at this scene in the chapter entitled “The Black Gate Opens”, we see that this is another of those disturbing—and seemingly arbitrary—changes made by the script writers, showing once more their disregard—or lack of proper understanding—of the author and his wishes.
“Aragorn said naught in answer, but he took the other’s eye and held it, and for a moment they strove thus; but soon, though Aragorn did not stir nor move hand to weapon, the other quailed and gave back as if menaced with a blow. ‘I am a herald and ambassador, and may not be assailed!’ he cried.”
There is a parallel in this, when we are told that Aragorn has used the Palantir and wrestled with Sauron.
“ ‘It was a bitter struggle, and the weariness is slow to pass. I spoke no word to him, and in the end I wrenched the Stone to my own will…Now in the very hour of his great designs the heir of Isildur and the Sword are revealed; for I showed the blade re-forged to him. He is not so mighty yet that he is above fear; nay, doubt ever gnaws him.’ ” (The Return of the King, Book 5, chapter 2, “The Passing of the Grey Company”)
(This is misportrayed in the extended version of the film. For some reason, in return for being shown Anduril, Sauron shows Aragorn a lifeless—perhaps just napping? “she looks like she’s only sleeping!”—Arwen—which, as is so often the case with the clumsy script writers, completely misses the real point of the scene in the book.)
In both of these scenes, what the author clearly meant to show was that Aragorn’s power, now that he has chosen to reveal it, comes from within and is so great that it needs neither words nor violence to assert itself—more signs that he is the true returning king.
Thus, harming a herald, in fact, shows him as the very opposite: not only violent, but, instead of restoring and preserving—his proper task as king—he violates custom.
We note, by the way, that, in the book, he looks to be following custom. Under the direction of Gandalf, the army which marches to challenge Sauron formally declares its ownership of Ithilien with trumpet blasts
and its own heralds.
What is a herald, anyway? The Mouth of Sauron claims to be one and even claims immunity because of it—why?
In fact, heralds, in the western world, have an ancient lineage, first appearing in literature in The Iliad, where they act both as messengers
and as referees.
You’ll notice, in the first of these two pictures, that the two heralds, Talthybius and Eurybates, have the badge of a herald: a special curved wand, called a kerykeion. Hermes carries one, to indicate that he is the patron god of heralds (and therefore their protector).
At some point in their early history, the convention appeared that heralds were considered, in their role as messengers, to be somehow neutral and therefore were not to be harmed. (It’s not clear, however, during their first appearance, in Iliad 1, that this was so then—or at least when dealing with Achilles–but perhaps that’s just Achilles, who is not necessarily always the most balanced individual.)
Heralds in the western medieval world continued with these functions, but added another.
We have a little evidence that some ancient Greek warriors and states may have used specific designs as badges. Spartan shields, for example, sometimes carried a lambda—a tentlike shape which stands for the sound of L in English and was short for “Lakedaimonia”, which is where Sparta was located.
A much more elaborate system of designs gradually developed during the Middle Ages, in part because of the increasingly-elaborate armor, which, from a long shirt of chain mail, came to cover the whole knight, making him, potentially unidentifiable.
So, both to make himself distinguishable on the battlefield and probably because it was macho, and therefore sexy, a knight would devise a distinctive design for his shield, possibly his clothing, and maybe even his horse, as well.
This could be pretty spectacular—just look at Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland in the early 14th century.
[A footnote here– at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn, there is a famous equestrian statue of the Bruce in which the head and facial features have been reconstructed from the Bruce’s actual skull.
Just before this same battle, the Bruce had shown his knightly skills by splitting, with his battle axe, the helmet and head of the English knight, Sir Henry de Bohun.]
Sometimes these designs could include puns on their owners’ names. Here’s Roger de Trumpington, with trumpets.
And Robert de Septvans (Septvans = “seven (winnowing) fans”).
The fan here looks actually like a basket, but was used for helping the wind to carry off the outer husk of the grain ear, a process called winnowing. (To the left is the previous process, flailing, where the beard of grain is being broken off the stalk before it is winnowed.)
As the number and complexity of patterns on armor developed, it appears that specialists took over the job of identifying them and keeping track of them, the heralds. And, from their name, we get our general name for the designs used on armor and clothing, heraldry. Because they worked in the world of heraldry, they decorated themselves, as well, and, in England, still do.
Thus, we can imagine that, when Aragorn, Gandalf, and their companions reached the crossroads in Ithilien,
after the trumpets sounded, heralds wearing a special coat, called a tabard,
which would have been embroidered with the tree and seven stars,
would have stepped forward and reclaimed the land for the king. Specially marked, they would have been very visible, and as the lieutenant of the tower tells us, protected by custom from harm. So why is Aragorn, the one man capable of returning order to Middle Earth, scripted to kill one? What do you think?
Thanks, as ever, for reading!
And now you know what the White Rabbit is wearing and is supposed to be doing in Alice