Agincourt, anti-aircraft gun, ballista, Bard the Bowman, Battle of Crecy, Battle of Poitiers, Border Reivers, Boromir, crossbow, Crossbow Bunnies, English Longbowmen, harpoon, Hundred Years War, John Singer Sargent, latch, Maximus, N.C. Wyeth, Peter Jackson, Richard the Lionheart, Robert Louis Stevenson, Robin Hood, Roman d'Alexandre, Siege of Chalus, Smaug, Tangled, The Black Arrow, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Mary Rose, Tolkien, Towton
In our review of the third Hobbit film, we questioned the use by Bard of something a little larger in the way of a missile than Tolkien had intended:
“Then Bard drew his bow-string to his ear. The dragon was circling back, flying low, and as he came the moon rose above the eastern shore and silvered his great wings.
‘Arrow!’ said the bowman. ‘Black Arrow! I have saved you to the last. You have never failed me and always I have recovered you. I had you from my father and he from of old. If ever you come from the forges of the true king under the Mountain, go now and speed well!’ ” (TH 307).
As Bard was firing this himself, we always envisioned him as an English longbowman.
And this led us to think a bit about Tolkien’s possible sources, not only for Bard and his bow, but for that arrow–the real one, not the monster dart used in the film.
From any children’s history of England, Tolkien would have learned that longbowmen like the one shown above destroyed three brave French armies in the Hundred Years War, at Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415).
In the film, however, although Bard was depicted as an archer,
his weapon of choice looks like this.
This reminds us of either a Roman ballista
or an anti-aircraft gun
or, most especially, a harpoon gun.
Especially when you look at this Bard’s arrow.
Although we currently have no evidence for Tolkien’s sources, we can imagine that they might have included, among others, Robin Hood,
the actions of actual Medieval archers like those at Agincourt or Towton (1461),
and a book, perhaps from boyhood, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow (1883/1888). Stevenson (here in an 1880s portrait by John Singer Sargent)
had originally published the story serially in a children’s magazine in 1883
before its publication in book form in 1888.
The classic illustrations are by one of our all-time favorite illustrators, NC Wyeth, from 1917.
We can’t resist showing you a few:
Although the bow is the weapon of choice of those who use the black arrow of the title (it’s employed for revenge), the hero in fact, has a crossbow.
The longbow requires years of training and great upper-body strength, leaving its mark on bowmen, as can be seen from this skeleton (and its reconstruction) brought up from the English warship, the Mary Rose,
which sank with most of its crew in 1545 and was brought up from the mud of the ocean floor in 1982.
The crossbow is a mechanical weapon, which uses much less strength to draw
and, in the more developed versions, even uses a crank to produce the necessary string tension.
(And, just as in the case of NC Wyeth illustrations, we can’t resist medieval manuscript illustrations. Look at this pair of crossbow… bunnies from a copy of the Roman d’ Alexandre, circa 1340.)
This makes it a less romantic weapon, but equally deadly: Richard the Lionheart was killed with a bolt/quarrel (what one calls a crossbow arrow) at the siege of Chalus in 1199.
(This creates another aside–about the hand weapon used as late as the 16th century by the Border Reivers of the land between northern England and southern Scotland–called a “latch”, it was the weapon of choice for those who couldn’t afford early hand guns but wanted to fire easily from the saddle.
The soldiers in Disney’s wonderful movie, Tangled, carry them–notice the off-hand side pouch with a handful of bolts for one on Maximus’ saddle–)
But we would like to conclude with one more use of that black arrow. A flight of them kills Boromir in The Lord of the Rings.
Just as we began by pointing to the text and the actual bow and arrow which kill Smaug, and not the harpoon of the film, so we would criticize this scene. In our opinion, it is stretched beyond believability, as well as beyond the text, taking away something of Boromir’s valor in combat with dozens of the enemy, in which he is gradually overcome.
This is just as true for the brief scene of Aragorn at Boromir’s death. What was simple in the text, thus making it more moving–just Boromir’s confession and Aragorn’s comforting him–becomes a soppy scene in which Boromir swears loyalty and calls Aragorn “my brother”, a liberty Aragorn-the-king-t0-be, would hardly have welcomed. In the theatrical world, this is called “milking the scene” and here, we think it curdled.
Thanks, as always, for reading.