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Welcome, dear readers, as always.
In our last posting, our central focus was upon Bard the Bowman and what he might have looked like.
As we do so often, we tried to use something from the history of our world to help us to flesh out JRRT’s description. In this case, we looked at Henry VIII’s battleship (a carrack, in the vocabulary of the period), the Mary Rose, which sank during a naval battle with the French on 19 July, 1545.
The ship was raised in 1982 (you can see the large surviving section of the hull in the Mary Rose museum, in Portsmouth, England).
It was full of artifacts—and of crew.
Because she sank so suddenly—and in the middle of a battle—almost none of the crew of 400 and more escaped. One of those trapped was this man.
His was among the roughly 90 skeletons well-enough preserved to allow for forensic exploration. That exploration, and the subsequent brilliant reconstruction, brought back to life a man about 6 feet (182cm) tall, with a powerfully-developed upper body. His build, certain characteristic marks of stress, and the fact that over 130 longbows and several thousand arrows were found in the wreck, led the archaeologists to see this man as an archer. We, in turn, then used him as the body-model for Bard.
But “bowman/archer” to us, who are crazy for adventure, immediately brought back Robin Hood, first in what we believe to be his best 20th-century incarnation, Erroll Flynn,
in the classic 1938 film.
To which we would add N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations
for the 1917 Robin Hood.
Thinking about bowmen in adventure stories then took us back to the first big adventure story in western literature, the Odyssey, and its hero, Odysseus, who has two associations with bows, but who, oddly enough, is never depicted as an archer, but rather as a trickster, who uses his brains to escape everything from a one-eyed giant
to an enchantress, Circe, who has already turned a good number of his crewmen into ham-on-the-hoof.
One of our favorite illustrations of Circe is by John William Waterhouse, which he worked on from 1911 to 1915.


The leopards in this version of the painting (in another, apparently, they are bears) reminded us of the snow leopard which is Lord Asriel’s demon, Stelmaria,
in Philip Pullman’s trilogy
His Dark Materials, the three books being The Golden Compass (in the British edition, Northern Lights), 1995, The Subtle Knife, 1997, and The Amber Spyglass, 2000.
These are remarkable books—full of vivid characters and places-other-than-here-and-now, and we have read and reread them since they first appeared. If you haven’t read them, we would add only one proviso: there is a strong anti-religious theme throughout and some devout readers might have difficulty with Pullman’s views. If you are willing to imagine that this is a critique of beliefs in other worlds than our own, however, we would unqualifiably recommend them. (Our favorite characters are Lyra, the fierce and fearless heroine, and Iorek Byrnison, a panserbjorn, or armored bear. There is a film version, released in 2007, based upon The Golden Compass, which we enjoy, although it has simplified and changed certain elements in the original story.)
But back to Odysseus the archer…
In the story of Troy, the famous archer is Paris, the son of Priam, the king of Troy, who uses his skill to kill Achilles, the most famous and powerful hero on the Greek side (in this pot illustration, almost by accident!).
Paris, according to some accounts (there are a number of them and they can differ in all sorts of details), is then killed by Philoctetes, who has inherited Heracles’ bow. A prophecy lies behind that bow: it seems that it is a necessary element in the conquest of Troy.
When Heracles is suffering from a poisoned shirt, and builds a pyre to cremate himself
it is Philoctetes who is willing to light it and, in return, he receives Heracles’ bow. On the way to Troy, however, Philoctetes is bitten by a snake and left behind on an island.
In some versions of the story (including Sophocles’ play), Odysseus acts as the main agent for, initially, bringing the bow to Troy, and then for bringing Philoctetes himself. So far, that is Odysseus’ only connection with archery. He is depicted as clever—being part of a successful scouting expedition in which a Trojan ally is killed and possibly the creator of the wooden horse—but, otherwise, his main accomplishments lie in beating up a trouble-maker at a public meeting and, at the funeral games which Achilles holds at the end of the Iliad for his companion, Patroclus, winning a footrace.
This footrace, however, leads us from Troy westward, as well as backward in time.
For all that there are these two huge things called the Iliad and the Odyssey, they are not all of the Troy story. They themselves are just collections of smaller stories stitched onto a plot outline. In the case of the Iliad, that outline is very basic: a. Achilles leaves war; b. Greeks substitute other warriors for Achilles; c. Achilles returns to war. The Odyssey is actually even more basic: man tries to find a way to sail home from Troy. Along with these, there are fragments from other parts of the tradition and lots of separate tales which often act as back-stories, probably invented when the popularity of the Troy tale in general caused a demand for singers to supply more material—the ancient equivalent of fan fiction!
One of these back-stories explains why Odysseus wins at the funeral games: he must already have been a famous foot racer, as he wins his bride, Penelope, from her father, the king of Sparta, in a footrace.
Not long after that, having gotten Penelope pregnant, he is off to Troy and won’t return for twenty years.
In the meantime, Penelope gives birth to a son, Telemachus, who grows up fatherless and in a household increasingly besieged by young men who claim that Odysseus must be dead and demand that Penelope must marry again.
To delay being forced to accept one of these obnoxious toads, Penelope (our favorite in the story, along with Athena) claims that, before she can choose, she has to finish a shroud she is weaving for Odysseus’ father, Laertes. (That’s Telemachus, on the left.)
In fact, although she weaves by day, she un-weaves by night and continues to do so for three years before one of her maids tells the suitors what’s going on.
(This is a remarkable piece of work designed by the painter/designer, Dora Wheeler, 1856-1940.
It is not a painting, but, in fact, an embroidery—silk stitched into silk cloth—and a remarkable artifact—and, unfortunately, the only surviving one of its kind.)
In year 19, Odysseus comes home—disguised by Athena as an old beggar, to keep him safe until he can plot his revenge and gather allies. In the meantime, Penelope (who, to us, is as quick-witted as her wandering husband) announces an archery contest, the winner to—win her. Besides the trickiness of the target (having something to do with shooting through axes—scholars have argued over just how that works for years), there is the bow: it has such a pull that only her husband, she says, has ever been able to string it.
(This illustration is by another wonderful woman artist, Angelica Kauffmann, 1741-1807. Here’s a self-portrait.)
Needless to say, the suitors are unable to do it, but that dirty old beggarman can—and does—and then, with a little help from Telemachus and a servant or two—not to mention Athena—proceeds to slaughter the suitors and clean house.
So, remembering the Mary Rose archer (as well as Bard), can we now imagine Odysseus’ build? And, for that matter, Robin Hood’s?
Thanks, as ever, for reading!