anachronism, Bag End, gun, gunpowder, hand gonne, Helm's Deep, pop-gun, Professor Moriarity, Reichenbach Falls, Rosenbach Library, Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Empty House, The Hobbit, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, Trev's Air Gun Scrapbook
Welcome, as always, dear reader.
The anachronisms in the 1937 Hobbit are well known: “cold chicken and tomatoes”, “like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel”, etc. We ourselves have contributed to the commentary in several past postings and here we are again.
This time, we were caught by something Gandalf says to Bilbo in Chapter 1:
“It is not like you, Bilbo, to keep friends waiting on the mat, and then open the door like a pop-gun” (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)
Just previously, Bilbo was described as pulling open “the door with a jerk” (and in tumble 4 dwarves), which suggests what the pop-gun sounds like, as well as how sudden the motion.
How is that sound made? Here’s an example of such a gun.
As you can see, it’s just a tube. Inside is a kind of plunger—a rod with a flattened end which faces towards the muzzle (the opening at the left). You pull back the rod and it draws air into the barrel. If you stick a cork in the muzzle, so that it makes a seal, when the rod is pushed up the barrel, the flattened rod end pushes the air in front of it, compressing it. The compressed air then forces out the cork, which shoots out with a POP!
For all that it uses air to propel the cork, this is, as its name implies, a kind of gun. Although there may be gunpowder in Middle-earth (see our earlier posting on the use of explosives at Helm’s Deep and the gate area of the Rammas Echor), it seems to be employed as the equivalent of dynamite,
and never as the propulsive force in what medieval people in our world called a “hand gonne”.
And thus it falls into that category of anachronisms. The idea of air guns, however, makes us think of the Daisy Air Rifle one of us had as a child.
The air was pulled in when the lever underneath the trigger was pulled down and then pushed back, to make it ready to fire. The illustration fires bbs, but ours was more peaceful, firing cork balls.
But a very unpeaceful version appears in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s
“The Adventure of the Empty House” (1903). Here’s the first page of the manuscript, housed at the Rosenbach Library, in Philadelphia. (And here’s a LINK to their excellent on-line magazine.)
Sherlock Holmes had disappeared after his combat with Professor Moriarity at the Reichenbach Falls
in Switzerland in 1891 (although the story in which this happens was published in The Strand Magazine in December, 1893).
For financial reasons, Conan Doyle brought Holmes back—first in the novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901,
but this story was supposed to have taken place in 1889, two years before Holmes’ disappearance. It was only with “The Adventure of the Empty House” that Holmes reappeared in contemporary London. Here, it was revealed that Holmes had not fallen to his death with Moriarity, but had survived and had lived in disguise for some years, traveling the world and avoiding the vengeance of Moriarity’s men and, in particular, his chief lieutenant, Colonel Sebastian Moran, who had actually seen Holmes escape the clutches (literally) of Moriarity and had tried unsuccessfully to kill him with a fall of rock.
Back in London, Holmes appears to Watson and enlists his aid in trapping Moran, which Holmes does by placing a wax bust of himself in outline in the window of 221B Baker Street as a lure. Holmes and Watson then wait across the street in an empty house (hence the title of the story), Holmes thinking that Moran will try to assassinate him from the street. Instead, Moran climbs to the very room where the two are concealed and, opening a window, uses an air rifle to attempt to kill Holmes—before he’s tackled by the pair and subdued, with the aid of several policemen summoned from hiding nearby.
Moran, Holmes explains, was thought to be the best shot in India, where he had been stationed for some years, so it’s not surprising that he would attempt the long-distance murder of Holmes, but why an air gun? (This is from the Granada television series of the 1980s, with the brilliant Jeremy Brett as Holmes.)
Air guns had first begun to appear in the 16th century, but, by the later 19th century could be either a toy, or a useful weapon for snipers, mainly because of its propulsion method. Until the 1890s, the main propellant was gunpowder which, when fired, produced a loud bang and a cloud of white smoke.
Imagine, instead, a weapon which made much less noise—or a noise very unlike a gun’s BANG! (Conan Doyle has Watson describe the sound as “a strange loud whiz”)– and no smoke at all. Perfect for a nighttime assassination, as Colonel Moran has planned it, never realizing that Holmes is well aware of his plan and foils it neatly (as Holmes almost always does).
In the 21st century, smokeless powder is the norm and air guns are now used for target shooting (including an Olympic event), and pop-guns? Still for sale—just google “toy pop guns” at Amazon.com
or E-Bay and see what you find—something Bilbo never could!
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
If you’d like to know more about air guns, here’s a LINK for a great source, “Trev’s Air Gun Scrapbook”.