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Welcome, dear readers, once more to our blog.
We’ve just been watching the extended version opening of The Fellowship of the Ring, in which Gandalf appears, driving a cart.
(Sorry—we couldn’t resist! We love Legos and the older Playmobil—Vikings, pirates, Roman warship, too. Not to forget the Egyptian pyramid! )
Unlike ordinary medieval carts,
it is quite elaborate.
You can see from our second illustration that both the medieval example and Gandalf’s have wattled sides—that is, the upright spindles below the railing top have pliable sticks (perhaps willow or hazel?) woven between them to make the sides of the cart.
This is also a common method for producing traditional house walls: you just add daub, which is clay plus fibre, as a kind of plaster to fill in around the sticks.
Many buildings, from the Neolithic on, were constructed using the technique,
as well as, without the daub, miles and miles of useful fencing.
What caught our attention, however, was the general look of the cart and the detailing of the wooden railing,
which very much reminded us of this—
a Celtic chariot of the sort one sees both in chariot burials
and in stirring reconstructions.
But that’s not the direction we wanted to take in this post. Rather, we were, as so often, thinking about the medieval world and Middle-earth and, in this case, wheeled vehicles.
The earliest evidence in Europe currently known for such vehicles is not the remains of a vehicle itself, but rather its tracks, found under a burial mound at Flintbek, in Schleswig-Holstein, in northwest Germany.
These have been dated to about 3600BC, during the late Neolithic Era. A bit later, we see this odd thing, the so-called “Trundholm Sun Chariot”, from about 1400BC
which actually appears to be some sort of wagon, or at least its frame.

Perhaps 50 years later, there are Bronze Age Mycenaean chariots
but, at least as far as illustrations go, European domestic vehicle depictions are scarce, especially in contrast to those of military—or sport—vehicles. Here’s a 5th-century BC depiction of a wagon being used for a wedding,
but we could then show you heaps of illustrations of chariots, used in very early Greece for warfare. You see them all over the Iliad, for example,
but chariots in the later Greek world were abandoned for warfare, although retained for racing, which was true for the Romans and for their successors, the Byzantines.
We have lots more depictions of domestic vehicles from the Roman world, both carts
and wagons.
This shouldn’t be surprising, we suppose, given that the Romans built more than 50,000 miles of roads.
Judging by these depictions, it appears that the medieval world simply continued using Roman vehicle patterns, just as, where available, they continued to use Roman roads.
For us, then Gandalf’s cart—which is not really described:
“At the end of the second week in September a cart came in through Bywater from the direction of Brandywine Bridge in broad daylight. An old man was driving it all alone…It had a cargo of fireworks…”
(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-expected Party”)
would follow what we see in manuscript illustrations.
Tolkien might have been thinking of such illustrations, of course, but there is another possibility. In the late-Victorian world into which JRRT was born, horses still powered vehicles and delivery carts like this one
would have been a common site—even after the Great War. Perhaps he was thinking of something he might still have seen outside his window when he was young?
We’ll stop here for now, but will continue in Part II, where we’ll consider Farmer Maggot’s wagon and wains…

Thanks, as ever, for reading.