Barliman Butterbur, Bayeux Tapestry, Beacons, call box, Cell Phones, communication, Eagles, Gondor, Great War, messenger dog, messenger pigeon, military post, Moth, motorcycle messenger, Nazgul, Palantir, pay phone, Postal Service, Postmen, runner, semaphore, signal lamp, telegrams, telegraphy, The Lord of the Rings, The Prancing Pony, Tolkien, wireless telegraphy
Welcome, as always, dear readers.
Recently, we were charging our cell/mobile phone and completely forgot it when we walked out of the house.
We were down the road when we realized it and the thought came to us: how times have changed! Before people could carry their little, flat phones in their pockets, away from home, if you had an emergency, you looked for a pay phone/call box.
When JRRT was born, in 1893, the main forms of long-distance communication were the post
and the telegram—brought to your house by a specially-uniformed messenger.
The telephone had been invented in 1875, but was still far from common–
London’s first telephone directory, issued in 1880, listed about 300 customers in a city of 5,000,000 and, when the first actual phone book arrived, in 1896, it had 81,000 numbers for the whole of Britain, with a population of perhaps 30,000,000. (To give you a literary example, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1896 and, although telegrams are common in the book, no one ever mentions or uses a telephone.)
When Second Lieutenant Tolkien
became his battalion’s signals officer in 1916, there were, in fact, a surprising number of forms of communication available, although most of them would not have ever appeared in civilian form.
There was the telephone, which, with its miles of wire, could be extremely vulnerable to enemy shellfire.
There was what would be called “wireless telegraphy”, an early form of radio, but not very dependable.
There was actual telegraphy which, again, used miles of wire.
There was the military post—mostly used not to transmit orders, but to maintain contact with home.
And then there were the more specifically military methods. At the most basic, there was the runner.
Then there was the motorcycle messenger,
the signal lamp,
and even the semaphore.
Beyond the human, there were the messenger dog,
and the messenger pigeon.
So, we asked ourselves, what were Tolkien’s Middle-earth equivalents? First of all, we see Bilbo in Chapter One of The Hobbit, reading his morning’s mail when Gandalf appears.
This is expanded upon in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, where we hear about the post as being one of the few actual public services in the Shire. (Here’s someone’s wonderful creation of a postal map of the Shire, complete with regional divisions.)
This service clearly doesn’t extend beyond the Shire as Gandalf is forced to leave a letter for Frodo at The Prancing Pony
in Bree, to be given to the first person going westwards. The innkeeper, Butterbur, completely forgets it, with serious consequences.
Because this is a pre-industrial world, none of the electronic means would be available, of course. Gondor used mounted messengers, as two are discovered ambushed by the Rohirrim on the road to the Rammas Echor (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 5,“The Ride of the Rohirrim”).
(This image is, of course, from the Bayeux Tapestry, the caption saying “Nuntii Wilielmi”, “William’s Messengers”, but the only illustrations of Gondorian mounted men we’ve found are all heavily-armored, something you wouldn’t expect a courier to be, so we’re suggesting this possibility, instead.)
A second method is by the chain of beacon fires along the mountains to the west of Gondor.
As for their opponents, we suppose that one might imagine the Nazgul as the airborne equivalent of mounted messengers, since they seem, when not pursuing Frodo and leading attacks on Gondor, to be couriers for Sauron.
Sauron’s main communication device, however, appears to be the palantir, whereby he controls the actions of Saruman and, to a degree, of Denethor, the Steward.
It’s rather surprising, we suppose, that Gandalf, who is powerful enough to deal with a palantir (although it’s Aragorn who is its rightful owner), can be so easily trapped by Saruman and left on top of Orthanc, completely isolated when he is so needed in the north.
In P. Jackson’s film, he uses what looks like a fancy moth to call for help,
which appears in the form of one of those eagles, so conveniently available when someone really gets into trouble (Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves in The Hobbit, as well as dwarves, elves, and men vs goblins and Wargs, Frodo and Sam on the edge of Mt Doom in The Return of the King). Suppose, instead, if Gandalf had reached into this robe and pulled out his cell phone–
which he would never have left behind after charging it…
Thanks for reading and