Welcome, dear readers, as ever.
In our last posting, in which we talked about the use (or not) of maps in late-Third Age Middle-earth, we included this quotation:
“…But in the wild lands beyond Bree there were mysterious wanderers. The Bree-folk called them Rangers, and knew nothing of their origin. They were taller and darker than the Men of Bree and were believed to have strange powers of sight and hearing, and to understand the languages of beasts and birds. They roamed at will southwards, and eastwards even as far as the Misty Mountains; but they were now few and rarely seen.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 9, “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony”)
We thought that we knew what “rangers” were—everything from the US Rangers who formed part of the Allied attack force on D-Day
to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers of the 1990s.
It seemed like fun, however, to learn a little more, beginning with the word “ranger” itself.
“To range” in English is, in fact “to roam at will”, but the verb has no suggestion of mystery about it in itself—except for the fact that it is appears to be derived from the word “rank”. How did that happen? we wondered and our best guess is that it had to do with hunting.
Our thinking went something like this:
- One method—still used today for things like grouse shooting in England—is for a group of unarmed people to move across the countryside, beating the ground and bushes with sticks to scare the animals to be hunted into moving from hiding.
- These people—called “beaters”–form up in a loose row—a rank—as they cross the land and perhaps “ranging” comes from this formation. As the word “ranger” has been associated with “gamekeeper” since the 14th century, this seems to make sense to us.
In mid-18th century England and British North America, “ranger” became a popular term for what would later be called “light infantry”. In Europe, during the Seven Years War (1756-1763), British armies made up of men in red coats
fought battles massed in long lines
against their main enemy, the French, in their grey-white coats.
In North America, however, things were different. Although there were a small number of soldiers in grey-white, many more were locals, with many Native American allies, who didn’t fight in the open, but used every inch of cover they could find.
To counter this, the British raised units from local colonists, whose manner of fighting and whose clothing matched more closely that of their local French and Native American opponents. These colonists called themselves “rangers”, probably because, in their rougher clothing, calculated to blend into the landscape, they looked more like gamekeepers
than redcoated regulars,
and probably also because their style of combat was more like that of hunters.
In time, they and one of their officers, Robert Rogers,
gained a reputation for daring, fighting independently of the more formal (and usually slower) regulars.
(Twenty years later, during the American Revolution, the British, to oppose such tactics, hired German soldiers who were actually drawn from gamekeepers. In German, they were called jaeger, which means “hunter”.)
The term kept some of its glamor in North America into the 19th century. It was used as the name for a mounted police force and border guard in Texas both when it was an independent republic (1836-1845), after it had become a US state (1845-1861), when it was brought back into the Union (1870), and up to the present.
It continued to be used during the American Civil War (1861-1865), mainly as the name for early (and often southern) militia companies with very colorful uniforms, probably to suggest that they were as dashing as the earlier units, even if, at the war’s beginning, they hadn’t the experience which those first rangers had acquired, sometimes painfully, in their forest wars.
The Texas use of the term also allows us to add a little mystery to “ranger”: in 1933, there began a radio drama series entitled “The Lone Ranger”, which followed the adventures of a masked justice-fighter in the US west and his side-kick, the Native American, Tonto. The Lone Ranger (aka John Reid) was the sole survivor of an ambush in which his elder brother and four other Texas rangers had been killed. Badly wounded, he had been rescued by Tonto, but, in order to conceal his identity, Tonto dug six graves and John Reid wore a mask (or a disguise) ever afterwards. The series was so successful that it ran for 2956 episodes (1933-1954), produced novels and comic books, several movies, and a television version which ran for 217 episodes (1949-1957). We include an image from the television series.
That the Lone Ranger is a mysterious wanderer on the side of good brings us back to our opening and one more fact about those Rangers. As the hobbits and Gandalf are on the way back from their adventures, they stop again at The Prancing Pony in Bree and in conversation, the owner of the inn, Barliman Butterbur, describes the situation after their first visit, with a moment of revelation:
“You see, we’re not used to such troubles; and the Rangers have all gone away, folk tell me. I don’t think we’ve rightly understood till now what they did for us. For there’s been worse than robbers about. Wolves were howling round the fences last winter. And there’s dark shapes in the woods, dreadful things that it makes the blood run cold to think of it…” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 7, “Homeward Bound”)
Although he never says it directly, Butterbur implies that, like the Lone Ranger, the Rangers in the wilderness beyond Bree had fought evil and Sam and Frodo will see men like that again in their trip farther south:
“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”)
It’s Faramir and his Rangers of Ithilien and they are about to ambush a column of reinforcements for Sauron, including mumakil—oliphaunts, as Sam calls them.
(A splendid illustration by Ted Nasmith)
Faramir and his men, in their camouflage and use of bush warfare techniques, remind us of those 18th-century rangers, just as their goal might remind us of the Lone Ranger and his fight for justice, as one of Faramir’s rangers, Mablung, tells Frodo and Sam:
“These cursed Southrons come now marching up the ancient roads to swell the hosts of the Dark Tower…And they go ever more heedlessly, we learn, thinking that the power of their new master is great enough, so that the mere shadow of His hills will protect them. We come to teach them another lesson…”
And on that word “lesson”, we’ll finish this posting, hoping that you’ve learned a bit more about rangers, both those in Middle-earth and on modern Earth, as well.
As ever, thanks for reading,