As always, dear readers, welcome.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about Gondor’s neighbors—not Mordor, with its hordes of orcs and even-more-unspeakable things, or heroic Rohan, but Harad, whose lands stretch far to the south, off the usual maps, and particularly about the city of Umbar.
Umbar is usually associated with its pirates, or corsairs, which I, in turn, always associate with the Barbary Pirates
(A romanticized view by the Danish artist, Niels Simonsen, 1807-1885.)
who made the western Mediterranean (and beyond), a dangerous place for merchants and travelers alike from the Middle Ages into the 19th century.
(I got my first taste of them from a children’s book written by, of all people, the author of the Hornblower novels, C.S. Forester.)
I wondered, however: pirates tend to be parasites, not builders–had Umbar always been a refuge for corsairs, a place whose harbor was always packed with their ships?
A little research was clearly in order.
If we were looking to find out more about a real pirate den, of which there are historical records, we would have libraries with shelves full of books written by numerous authors over several centuries. Because this is an imaginary place, the creation of a single man, our sources are much more limited, however, and, as I began to try to provide myself—and you, dear readers—with more on Umbar, I found that I really had only three main ones: the obvious The Lord of the Rings,
but then The Peoples of Middle-earth,
and what I’ve always seen as a kind of odd-book-out, The Silmarillion.
One of the most remarkable elements in Tolkien’s work is the depth of Middle-earth’s history, although often recorded only in the form of either annalistic or chronicalistic entries. Derived from the Latin word annus, “year”, annals are lists of events, year after year, rather like a kind of basic timeline. Chronicles, ultimately from the Greek word, chronos, “time”, may be seen as a kind of more developed annal, in which the events can be described in greater detail.
I find these definitions a bit fuzzy, and JRRT himself uses the word “annals” in the title of Section A of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, “Annals of the Kings and Rulers”, although there is so much description that “Chronicles” might be more appropriate. Annals or Chronicles, the first entry for Umbar appears in Appendix B, “The Tale of Years” under The Second Age:
“[SA]2280 Umbar is made into a great fortress of Numenor”
It is clear, however, from a reference in Appendix F, I, “The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age”, that Umbar is, in fact, older than this fortifying:
(about place names) “A few were of forgotten origin, and descended doubtless from the days before the ships of the Numenoreans sailed the Sea; among these were Umbar, Arnach, and Erech…”
After this reference, things become a little hazy. Sauron, who always seems to be lurking nearby, was aware that things were not well in Numenor. Ar-Pharazon had forcibly married his first cousin and taken the throne, so:
“Now Sauron knowing of the dissension in Numenor thought how he might use it to achieve his revenge. He began therefore to assail the havens and forts of the Numenoreans, and invaded the coast-lands under their dominion.” (The Peoples of Middle-earth, “The Tale of Years of the Second Age”)
Ar-Pharazon, in response:
“…prepared, and at last he himself set sail with a great navy and armament, the greatest that had yet appeared in the world.”
This was not what Sauron had expected:
“And Ar-Pharazon landed at Umbar, and so great was the splendour and might of the Numenoreans at the noon of their glory that at the rumour of them alone all men flocked to their summons and did obeisance; and Sauron’s own servants fled away.”
Slippery as ever, Sauron thinks that, if he can’t obtain what he wants by force, he can do it by trickery, and surrenders to Ar-Pharazon in SA3262. (“The Tale of Years”, The Second Age)
Things go out of focus again for a while as Numenor collapses, but it appears that a kind of subset of the Numenoreans, the Black Numenoreans, continued to hold the city, perhaps with the aid of the local people, the Haradrim. (For an extended version of how Sauron ruins Numenor from within, see the “Akallabeth” in The Silmarillion.)
Things become clear again early in the Third Age, when the Gondorian king Earnil I, led an expedition to retake Umbar in TA933 (Appendix B, The Third Age). Having done so, he and much of his fleet were then lost in a storm off the coast (Appendix A, “Gondor and the Heirs of Anarion”), but worse was to come as:
“…the Men of the Harad, led by the lords that had been driven from Umbar, came up with great power against that stronghold, and Ciryandil [Earnil’s son] fell in battle in Haradwaith.”
The subsequent siege of Umbar lasted for 35 years (“The Tale of Years”, The Third Age: “1015 King Ciryandil slain in the siege of Umbar”; “1050 Hyarmendacil conquers the Harad”), but:
“could not be taken because of the sea-power of Gondor.”
In TA1050, Ciryaher, Ciryandil’s son:
“…came down from the north by sea and by land, and crossing the River Harnen his armies utterly defeated the Men of the Harad, and their kings were compelled to acknowledge the overlordship of Gondor.”
From that time, Umbar was part of Gondor, but, as history in Middle-earth so often seems to have a roller coaster effect,
in TA1432, there begins the civil war called “the Kin-strife”, which continues to TA1448, the losers
“…sailed away, and established themselves at Umbar. There they made a refuge for all of the enemies of the king, and a lordship independent of his crown. Umbar remained at war with Gondor for many lives of men, a threat to its coastlands and to all traffic on the sea. It was never again completely subdued until the days of Elessar; and the region of South Gondor became a debatable land between the Corsairs and the Kings.”
And this answers my question: the Corsairs of Umbar postdated the fortification, if not the founding, of Umbar by 2609 years.
As I was working on this, I found, as I often do, a suggestion of something which might have influenced JRRT. Before he was drawn away by Germanic, Celtic, and Finno-Ugric, Tolkien had begun his academic life as a classicist, and those words referring to the 35-year siege of Umbar, that the city “could not be taken because of the sea-power of Gondor” immediately brought back another city and another long siege.
After the defeat of the invading Persians at the battle of Plataea, in 479BC,
some of the victorious Greek cities, including Athens, wanted to continue the war by carrying it to the Persian-occupied Greek colonies of Asia Minor. These cities formed a collective called the “Delian League”, from its headquarters on the island of Delos. After some initial success, the League gradually seemed to lose its purpose and soon the leading state, Athens, had taken over the League, gradually turning it into the Athenian Empire.
There were some cities, however, which became increasingly anxious about Athens’ growing power, the leader among them being Sparta, a military state in southern Greece. In time, this would lead to a long war, the so-called “Peloponnesian War”, 431-404BC, (named for the southern part of Greece, where some of the fighting took place), Sparta and its allies on one side, Athens and its empire on the other.
In this war, the two sides were both powerful, but their power lay in different directions: the Spartans were heavy infantry, drilled intensively to fight in a massed formation called a phalanx.
The Athenians, as a nation of merchant/seafarers, were a naval power, possessing a large professional fleet of warships called triremes (meaning having three banks of oars).
As well, although Athens, unlike Umbar, was not situated directly at its port, it had constructed solid fortifications which joined the city with its not one, but three ports.
Each year, in the early years of the long war, the Spartans would send an army to the countryside outside Athens, block entry to the city, and destroy farmlands. To any other place, this might have been fatal, but Athens, like Umbar, “could not be taken because of the sea-power”, so, as long as that sea-power had no rival, then Sparta, like the Haradrim, could march outside Athens’ walls every summer, yet neither deter the defenders nor penetrate the walls.
Gondorian Umbar survived its 35-year siege, being rescued by a king and his armies. Athens was not so fortunate. Sparta gave in to Persian influence and Persian money, and built a fleet which destroyed the Athenian fleet at the battle of Aegospotami, in 405BC.
The next year, Athens, no longer able to guarantee supply by sea with its naval power so reduced, surrendered and, as a token of that surrender, was forced to knock holes in her long walls. She was allowed to survive, but never owned an empire again.
Lay in plenty of provisions (and arrows),
And remember that, as ever, there’s
Welcome, as ever, dear readers.
Is trying to persuade Gandalf to join him in betraying their trust to the Valar:
“We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order…”
(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)
Gandalf doesn’t accept any of this, of course, saying:
“ ‘Saruman…I have heard speeches of this kind before, but only in the mouths of emissaries sent from Mordor to deceive the ignorant. I cannot think that you brought me so far only to weary my ears.’ “
Saruman has not begun this conversation well. Gandalf has actually come to Isengard at his urging, that urging being delivered by Radagast:
“ ‘And he told me to say that if you feel the need, he will help; but you must seek his aid at once, or it will be too late.’ “
When Gandalf arrives, however, Saruman is less than welcoming, replying to Gandalf’s explanation that he has come for the offered aid:
“ ‘Have you indeed, Gandalf the Grey! he scoffed. ‘For aid? It has seldom been heard of that Gandalf the Grey sought for aid, one so cunning and so wise, wandering about the lands, and concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not.’ “
Because I’m assuming that we’ve all read beyond this, we know what Saruman is up to, but, if, for a moment, we can forget what we know, let’s see if we can try to understand both his tactics—that is, his immediate actions—and his strategy—his overall plan.
First, Saruman begins by emphasizing part of Gandalf’s common title which, we know from Christopher Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales means more than just the plain color. There is a hierarchy of the Istari, the so-called “wizards” (from the Old English adjective wis, “experienced/learned/knowledgeable). Originally 5 in number, they were sent to Middle-earth by the Valar, something like the senior angels in Tolkien’s mythology:
“The first to come was of noble mien [appearance] and bearing, with raven hair, and a fair voice, and he was clad in white; great skill he had in works of hand, and he was regarded by well-nigh all, even by the Eldar, as the head of the Order. Others there were also: two clad in sea-blue, and one in earthen brown; and last came one who seemed the least, less tall than the others, and in looks more aged, grey-haired and grey-clad, and leaning on a staff.” (Unfinished Tales, 406)
Thus, Saruman has begun by attempting to push Gandalf down the ranks, to the position of the least of the Istari. Second, he contrasts himself with Gandalf in terms of location: Saruman and Gandalf are in the tower of Orthanc,
(a rough sketch by JRRT)
in the middle of Isengard, which Saruman had taken possession of (originally in the name of Gondor) about 250 years before (for the date, see The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, II, “The House of Eorl”), while Gandalf appears to have no permanent home.
Third, he suggests that there are matters about which Gandalf should not concern himself, implying that he, Saruman, is master of such things.
To emphasize this, he now makes a rather surprising declaration:
“ ‘For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!’ ”
Although no one would doubt his past displays of wisdom, his other two claims definitely call for investigation.
First, there’s that ring—Gandalf had noticed it when he first arrived at Isengard:
“But I rode to the foot of Orthanc, and came to the stair of Saruman; and there he met me and led me up to his high chamber. We wore a ring on his finger.”
Gandalf doesn’t identify this, but I would suggest that we have a clue from Unfinished Tales, where we are told of an incident which occurred when Gandalf had first reached Middle-earth from the West and had met the master of the Grey Havens, Cirdan:
“But Cirdan from their first meeting at the Grey Havens divined in him the greatest spirit and the wisest; and he welcomed him with reverence, and he gave to his keeping the Third Ring, Narya the Red…and the Grey Messenger took the Ring, and kept it ever secret; yet the White Messenger (who was skilled to uncover all secrets) after a time became aware of this gift, and begrudged it, and it was the beginning of the hidden ill-will that he bore to the Grey, which afterwards became manifest.” (Unfinished Tales, 407)
If nothing else, then, we can imagine that Saruman’s ring is an imitation of Gandalf’s, just as he makes Isengard, with its workshops and orcs, a tiny imitation of Mordor. And we can also better understand his tone: although he is considered the head of the Istari, Gandalf, the last of the Order, has been given a symbol of power which Saruman has not—Saruman is jealous of Gandalf.
We might also imagine that, by styling himself “Ring-maker”, he is indirectly suggesting another rivalry, one with someone who is much greater than he—but we’ll come back to this and a certain Ring. Before we do, let’s examine that third claim, “Saruman of Many Colours”.
Saruman, as we know, has been sent by the Valar to Middle-earth as Saruman the White, but, as Gandalf now sees:
“ ‘I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.’ “
Gandalf, unimpressed by this display, says simply, “I liked white better” to which Saruman replies:
“ ‘White!…It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”
In these robes and with these words, Saruman reveals part of his strategy: he has divorced himself from his original self, the one dispatched from Valinor, recreating himself in a new role, not White Messenger, but Rainbow-colored Other. But, even in this new form, he appears unsure enough of himself that he attempts to bring the despised Gandalf over to him:
“…but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see…And listen, Gandalf, my old friend and helper!…I said we, for we it may be, if you will join with me.”
So far, Saruman has addressed Gandalf as a lesser figure, suggesting that he is the least of the Order, homeless, and a busybody. Now, however, he seems to be trying to enlist him: why?
“A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. There is no hope left in Elves or dying Numenor. This then is one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it.”
So, Saruman may be wise, ring-making, many-colored, but he appears to be saying that there is something more powerful yet—but not so powerful that there won’t be ways, in time, to master it:
“ ‘As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow, and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.’ “
And then, as we saw at the opening of this posting, Gandalf rejects this proposal, Saruman comes to his real point:
“ ‘Why not?…The Ruling Ring? If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us. That is in truth why I brought you here. For I have many eyes in my service, and I believe that you know where this precious thing lies.”
“Precious” is a frightening word in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, being Gollum’s term for the object he murdered his cousin to obtain and which will eventually bring about his own death.
That Saruman uses it tells us almost as much about him as all the rest of his words and Gandalf’s second rejection—which Saruman claims to have foreseen—sums up the truth under all of his words: “ ‘Saruman…only one hand at a time can wield the One, and you know that well, so do not trouble to say we!”
And, with that, we can see Saruman’s tactics: reduce Gandalf to a servant, then ask for his help; as well as his strategy: having enlisted that help, use it to find the Ring and master its true master, Sauron.
In the Athens of the 5th century BC,
there arose a new kind of teacher, who claimed to be able to instruct people in everything from how to understand the world to how to behave within the world. What they taught was called sophia, coming from the adjective sophos, (so-FOSS) originally meaning “skilled”—and this could be skilled in anything, from carpentry to public speaking. A teacher of this sort was then called a sophistes (so-fihs-TAYSE). Among a number of early teachers, perhaps the most prominent was Protagoras (c.490-c.420bc).
In part because they charged money, but also partly because some made big claims, they came to the negative—and influential—attention of Plato (428-348bc)
and then to his pupil, to Aristotle (384-322bc),
and, in time, their reputation had become so blackened that we now use the term “sophistry” to mean something like “an argument which looks convincing—but will be found to be based upon falsity”.
And this is exactly what Saruman is using and which Gandalf sees through.
In comparison with Saruman’s lies, let’s begin with the goals of the Valar in sending the Istari to Middle-earth:
“Emissaries they were from the Lords of the West, the Valar, who still took counsel for the governance of Middle-earth, and when the shadow of Sauron began first to stir again took this means of resisting him.”
Thus, we see immediately that, by proposing to ally himself and Gandalf with Sauron, Saruman is undercutting their original purpose: as opposition.
Next, there is the method to be used by the Istari:
“…their emissaries were forbidden to reveal themselves in forms of majesty, or to seek to rule the wills of Elves or Men by open display of power, but coming in shapes weak and humble were bidden to advise and persuade Men and Elves to good…”
and their purpose:
“…and to seek to unite in love and understanding all those whom Sauron, should he come again, would endeavour to dominate and corrupt.” (Unfinished Tales, 406)
Set this against Saruman’s claim that the Istari “high and ultimate purpose” was “Knowledge, Rule, Order” and you can see that what Saruman really means by this is his knowledge, rule, and order—and add to that his real desire, as he admits to Gandalf: the Ring and the power it holds, even over Sauron. And you can see, as well, why Gandalf rejects both his reasoning and his offer, replying:
“ ‘You were head of the Council, but you have unmasked yourself at last. Well, the choices are, it seems, to submit to Sauron, or to yourself? I will take neither. Have you others to offer?’ “
(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)
But what has happened to the White Messenger? Somewhere between his arrival at Isengard in TA 2759 and his encounter with Gandalf in TA3018, he has changed, drastically. Along with the tower of Orthanc, he has also acquired its palantir: has one charged to protect others from Sauron’s attempts to dominate and corrupt now himself become dominated and corrupted through it—and its connection with the owner of another?
Perhaps there is a clue in Gandalf’s description of the opening of Saruman’s proposal:
“ ‘He drew himself up then and began to declaim, as if he were making a speech long rehearsed.’ “
Some sophists taught the art of persuasion—has someone else been instructing Saruman in sophistry?
Thanks, as always, for reading,
Be wary of people who sound too plausible,
And know that, as ever, there’s
“Fear death by water.”
(TS Eliot, The Wasteland, 1922, Section I: “The Burial of the Dead”)
As always, dear readers, welcome.
In 1908, Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932)
already known for The Golden Age (1895)
and Dream Days (1898),
published the book for which he is best remembered, The Wind in the Willows.
If you don’t know it, it’s the story of a group of animal friends, centered around Toad,
an eccentric, who causes no end of trouble to those friends. The original 1908 edition wasn’t illustrated, but, in time, gained two who are still known for their work, Ernest H. Shepard (1879-1976), who brought Toad and his harassed friends to life in 1931,
and Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), whose work was published in 1940, not long after his death.
Two of Toad’s friends are Rat and Mole
and the title of this posting comes from their first adventure together, as Rat invites Mole to go boating:
“This has been a wonderful day!” said he, as the Rat shoved off and took to the sculls again. “Do you know, I’ve never been in a boat before in all my life.”
“What?” cried the Rat, open-mouthed: “Never been in a—you never—well I—what have you been doing, then?”
“Is it so nice as all that?” asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.
“Nice? It’s the only thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,” he went on dreamily: “messing—about—in—boats; messing——”
“Look ahead, Rat!” cried the Mole suddenly.
It was too late. The boat struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air.
“—about in boats—or with boats,” the Rat went on composedly, picking himself up with a pleasant laugh. “In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not. Look here! If you’ve really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?”
(Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, 1908, Chapter 1,”The River Bank”)
This, for all that Rat absentmindedly rams them into the riverbank, is a happy time, but it reminded me of another, less happy, event, as described at 2nd—or 3rd—or 4th-hand in a pub in the Shire—
“ ‘A decent respectable hobbit was Mr. Drogo Baggins; there was never much to tell of him, till he was drownded.’
‘Drownded?’ said several voices. They had heard this and other darker rumours before, of course; but hobbits have a passion for family history, and they were ready to hear it again.
‘Well, so they say,’ said the Gaffer. ‘You see: Mr. Drogo, he married poor Miss Primula Brandybuck…And Mr. Drogo was staying at Brandy Hall with his father-in-law, old Master Gorbadoc, as he often did after his marriage…and he went out boating on the Brandywine River; and he and his wife were drownded, and poor Mr. Frodo only a child and all.’
‘I’ve heard they went on the river after dinner in the moonlight,’ said Old Noakes; ‘and it was Drogo’s weight as sunk the boat.’
‘And I heard she pushed him in, and he pulled her in after him,’ said Sandyman, the Hobbiton miller.”
(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-expected Party”)
If Rat and Mole’s adventure in the river reminded me of the gossip about Frodo’s parents, the gossip about Frodo’s parents reminded me of a very famous early attempted boat murder—or at least Roman gossip about one.
In 54AD, the emperor Claudius (10BC-54AD)
died (gossip had it that he was poisoned by his fourth wife, Agrippina the Younger, 23-59AD), leaving Agrippina’s son, Nero (37-68AD), adopted by Claudius,
to succeed him. For the first couple of years, mother and son seemed to rule jointly, even appearing on coins together,
but then things went wrong and, soon, Nero was trying to think how he might remove his mother—permanently. Our sources for this—Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio—provide rather different pictures of his methods, including Nero attempting to poison her on three separate occasions, Agrippina being saved by the fact that she had regularly dosed herself with them to make herself immune, but my favorite is the story of the collapsible boat.
In this version, Nero offers his mother the use of a pleasure boat
perhaps a little less grand than this, but with a terrible secret: it had been constructed in such a way that, when the time was right, it would come apart and drown Agrippina.
Like his earlier plans, however, this failed, as Agrippina swam safely to shore—only to be later murdered by Nero’s assassins—but she would have been wise, before she accepted the offer of that boat, to listen to the words of the Gaffer in reply to Ted Sandyman:
“ ‘You shouldn’t listen to all you hear, Sandyman,’ said the Gaffer… ‘There isn’t no call to go talking of pushing and pulling. Boats are quite tricky enough for those that sit still without looking for the cause of trouble.’ “
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Point out the approaching bank early to Ratty,
And know that, as always, there’s
If you don’t have your own copy of The Wind in the Willows, here’s the 1913 Scribner edition: https://archive.org/details/windinwillows00grah