A Long-Expected Party, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Backarapper, Benwell Fireworks, cracker, Elizabethan entertainment, Fireworks, fountain, Gandalf, Kenilworth Castle, Pain's Imperial Fireworks, Queen Elizabeth, Robert Dudley, Robert Langham, Roman Candles, Shakespeare, Sparkler, squib, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, thunderclap, Tolkien, torch
Welcome, dear readers, as always.
When Gandalf first arrives at Bilbo’s door “in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green”, Bilbo’s memories of him are hardly those of someone aware who Gandalf really is:
“Gandalf, Gandalf! Good gracious me! Not the wandering wizard that gave Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone till ordered? Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons? Not the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks!” (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)
And it’s the fireworks in particular which made a strong impression:
“I remember those! Old Took used to have them on Midsummer’s Eve. Splendid! They used to go up like great lilies and snapdragons and laburnums of fire and hang in the twilight all evening!”
[Here, by the way are the three flowers he mentions, in case, like us, you live in a climate where such things won’t appear for months yet!]
And, although he alludes to an edgier side of Gandalf (“Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures?”), he concludes as if Gandalf were merely some sort of superior tradesman:
“I beg your pardon, but I had no idea you were still in business!”
Gandalf is patient, however, only replying:
“Where else should I be?… All the same I am pleased to find that you remember something about me. You seem to remember my fireworks kindly, at any rate, and that is not without hope…”
Perhaps the idea of linking Gandalf and fireworks is pardonable, however, when we see how, after being associated with them at the beginning of The Hobbit, he appears at the opening of The Lord of the Rings actually bringing fireworks to Hobbiton:
“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. He wore a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf. He had a long white beard and bushy eyebrows that stuck out beyond the brim of his hat. Small hobbit-children ran after the cart all through Hobbiton and right up the hill. It had a cargo of fireworks, as they rightly guessed. At Bilbo’s front door the old man began to unload: there were great bundles of fireworks of all sorts and shapes, each labeled with a large red G…and the elf-rune…” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-expected Party)
(This is from a site called “Llama’s War of the Ring”, which has all sorts of interesting figures and conversions—here’s a LINK.)
Those great bundles turned into spectacular entertainment at the joint birthday party:
“The fireworks were by Gandalf: they were not only brought by him, but designed and made by him; and the special effects, set pieces, and flights of rockets were let off by him. But there was also a generous distribution of squibs, crackers, backarappers, sparklers, torches, dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers and thunderclaps. They were all superb. The art of Gandalf improved with age.”
We ourselves enjoy fireworks, and, for the sake of our readers who might not be familiar with some of the types mentioned, we add here a few images—although some, like “dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers” no longer seem to be available.
A squib is a small firecracker, like these.
Crackers seem to come in sets.
Backarappers—we don’t have an image, but here’s a definition (and it sounds like the previous image):
“A firework made from multiple firecrackers folded together so that they will explode one after another”. (from G.F. Northall’s Warwickshire Word-book, 1896)
Sparklers are metal rods or bamboo sticks whose upper part has what is called “pyrotechnic composition”—which means something which shoots out sparks when it’s lit.
Torches may be these—which, when lighted, change color as they burn down (or so the manufacturer’s description says).
Although there are no “dwarf-candles”, there are Roman Candles. These are built in stages and, as the fire burns down, they shoot out star-patterns—as you can see.
There are no “elf-fountains”, either, but there are fountains and they look like this—
Finally, we can date a “thunderclap”, made by Benwell, back to this advertisement from about 1950,
but we wouldn’t be surprised if Pain’s (not the best name for fireworks, we would say!) carried them, as they have something called “Laburnum Blossoms” in this 1903 listing
Gandalf’s productions were clearly quite spectacular—which was undoubtedly why Bilbo remembers them:
“There were rockets like a flight of scintillating birds singing with sweet voices. There were green trees with trunks of dark smoke: their leaves opened like a whole spring unfolding in a moment, and their shining branches dropped glowing flowers down upon the astonished hobbits, disappearing with a sweet scene just before they touched their upturned faces. There were fountains of butterflies that flew glittering into the trees; there were pillars of coloured fires that rose and turned into eagles, or sailing ships, or a phalanx of flying swans; there was a red thunderstorm and a shower of yellow rain; there was a forest of silver spears that sprang suddenly into the air with a yell like an embattled army, and came down again into the Water with a hiss like a hundred hot snakes.”
And then there was the finale. Pain’s, in that 1903 listing, could make claims to baskets of elaborate pyrotechnics, but this?
“And there was also one last surprise, in honour of Bilbo, and it startled the hobbits exceedingly, as Gandalf intended. The lights went out. A great smoke went up. It shaped itself like a mountain seen in the distance, and began to glow at the summit. It spouted green and scarlet flames. Out flew a red-golden dragon—not life-size, but terribly life-like: fire came from his jaws, his eyes glared down; there was a roar and he whizzed three times over the heads of the crowd. They all ducked, and many fell flat on their faces. The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion.”
In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairy king, Oberon, says to his spirit-servant, Puck, these rather mysterious lines:
“My gentle Puck, come hither. Thou rememberest
Since once I sat upon a promontory
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres
To hear the mermaid’s music?”
(Act 2, Scene 1)
In 1575, Queen Elizabeth I
visited Kenilworth Castle,
the home of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester,
and a close friend (and maybe more). To entertain her, Dudley spent thousands of pounds.
(This is actually a gold sovereign—worth 20 shillings—that is, a pound, but there were no actual pound coins till after 1583.)
Among the entertainments was a big fireworks display (as well as at least one mermaid—see the LINK here for Robert Langham/Laneham’s contemporary “letter” in which he describes these entertainments in detail) and some scholars have theorized that those falling stars mentioned by Oberon are, in fact, Shakespeare’s boyhood memory of having seen the fireworks display (and the mermaid). Kenilworth is only 14 miles from Stratford and Shakespeare was 11 and living at home—we presume—at that time, so we can imagine that this is possibility. We know that JRRT had seen fireworks shows as a boy—as he tells us in a letter to Donald Swann, 29 February, 1968 (Letters, 390)—but we wonder: did he ever, in those early years, see Goblin-barkers, or a red-golden dragon?
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
We almost forgot–in case you’d like to make your own fireworks (definitely not recommended–and definitely illegal in some places!), here’s an 1878 manual on the subject.