camouflage, Disney, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Errol Flynn, Faramir, feldgrau, Great War, Ithilien, jaeger, khaki, Men in Tights, Richard Knoetel, Robin Hood, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, trenches, uniforms
As ever, dear readers, welcome.
After standing and reciting his “party piece”, and stewing two rabbits, Sam is about to see his first—and only—oliphaunt.
Before he does, however:
“Four tall Men stood there. Two had spears in their hands with broad bright heads. Two had great bows, almost of their own height, and great quivers of long green-feathered arrows. All had swords at their sides, and were clad in green and brown of varied hues, as if the better to walk unseen in the glades of Ithilien. Green gauntlets covered their hands, and their faces were hooded and masked with green, except for their eyes, which were very keen and bright.” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 4, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”)
The chief of these men soon identifies himself as “Faramir, Captain of Gondor” and the men with him are rangers, a term which first appears in 14th-century English to mean “game keeper”, which seems appropriate for Faramir and his men, as far as their dress is concerned. One might expect that those who spend their days in the woods would only naturally want to blend in, especially if part of their job is to apprehend poachers—trespassers who illegally hunt game. Faramir’s and his men’s clothing could also be that of poachers, if we match that description—the green and brown part—with some very familiar figures from another famous story—
If you read us regularly, you will probably recognize them, especially if we add one of our favorite illustrations.
If you still don’t recognize them, we’ll add a book cover.
This is the 1917 publication of the retelling of the Robin Hood stories, with illustrations by NC Wyeth and it’s clear that his depictions of Robin and his men—just like his illustrations of pirates—have influenced story-tellers and costume-designers long after that initial 1917 publication. Just look at Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s 1922 Robin Hood,
or the 1938 Errol Flynn The Adventures of Robin Hood
or even Disney’s 1973 animated Robin Hood
and even the 1993 parody, Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
Tolkien, we presume, would have known the Wyeth illustrations and perhaps the Errol Flynn, and might have had them in mind when he was describing the basic dress of Robin and his men. Beyond the basic outfit, however, these men are clearly dressed for more than poaching and apprehending—and it isn’t just the weapons, but also the gloves and the face-coverings. These men are soldiers and rangers have been soldiers, or the models for them, since at least the 18th century, when certain German states, including Prussia and Hesse Kassel, employed forest rangers as light infantry—men trained as sharpshooters and skirmishers, called jaeger (“hunter” in German).
In the 19th century, increasing numbers of ordinary troops of many western nations were given similar training, but the jaeger continued to be allowed special uniforms, usually green.
This is an illustration by one of the greatest (and one of our favorite) German military/historical artists of the late 19th-early-20th centuries, Richard Knoetel, dated 1910.
When the Great War began in 1914, all the soldiers of many of the countries involved were already moving away from the bright-colored uniforms of past years and dressing more like hunters. The British put off their parade uniforms
and dressed in a mud-color, that color being called “khaki” (originally a Persian word meaning “dust”).
The Germans, whose parade dress was blue,
dressed in a color called feldgrau (“field grey”).
Only the French began the war still on parade,
but even they gradually changed into something which blended in better with the terrain.
And blending in was absolutely necessary in a world in which war was being fought not with muskets and cannon, as in Napoleon’s days
but with machine guns which could fire 600 rounds per minute
and guns so big that some had to be transported on railroad trains.
Whenever possible, soldiers dug in, spending their days below ground level, in trenches.
When they had to go above ground level, they wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible. Here’s what 2nd Lieutenant Tolkien might have looked like in 1916 (notice that, by 1916, British soldiers had put aside caps in the trenches and used helmets which looked positively medieval).
The term for this blending-in was “camouflage”, which entered English from French in 1917 and it was used not only by infantry, but the practice was extended to everything on the battlefield and beyond– to the new tanks
and even to ships, where the goal was to conceal or sometimes simply to confuse the eye.
Some of the most extreme varieties take us back to the rangers of South Ithilien, like this sniper, whose job was to pick off unsuspecting soldiers (officers were a special prize) from complete concealment.
This makes us wonder what Faramir and his men would have done if they had been armed with magazine rifles,
instead of bows as, after all, they are there for an ambush…
As always, thanks for reading and