As ever, dear readers, welcome.
In my last posting, which was about goblins, I quoted a stanza from a poem which my grandmother used to recite, James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie” (1885). Riley wanted to sound like someone from rural Ohio, so the poem is written in late 19th-century Midwestern US dialect:
“An’ one time a little girl ‘ud allus laugh an’ grin
An’ make fun of ever’one, an’ all her blood an’ kin;
An’ onc’t, when they was “company,” an’ ole folks was there,
She mocked ‘em an’ shocked ‘em, an’ said she didn’t care!
An’ jist as she kicked up her heels, an’ turn’t to run an’ hide,
They was two great Black Things a-standin’ by her side,
An’ they snatched her through the ceilin’ ‘fore she knowed what she’s about!
An’ the Gobble-uns’ll git you
(If you don’t know the poem, here’s a LINK to the whole text: https://poets.org/poem/little-orphant-annie )
It was, for a small person, a fairly disturbing poem, and this stanza in particular, haunted me (pun definitely intended). I was used to monsters of all types and sizes, from Frankenstein
to fairy tale dragons,
but somehow these goblins were especially troubling because, unlike those other creatures, who all had a distinctive look, these had no shape, being described as just “two great Black Things”.
I forgot all about them, however—except for that warning at the end of the stanza—“And the Gobble-uns’ll git ef you don’t watch out!” (always good to be watchful about the supernatural), until I was in grad school and I met this in Milton’s Paradise Lost:
“The other shape,
If shape it might be call’d that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb,
Or substance might be call’d that shadow seem’d,
For each seem’d either; black it stood as Night,
Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell,
And shook a dreadful Dart; what seem’d his head
The likeness of a Kingly Crown had on.”
(Paradise Lost, Book II, 666-673)
It was a description of Death and there was that shapelessness again. But there was another shapeless something in my life by then—and, I suspect for you, dear readers, as well:
“Upon it sat a shape, black-mantled, huge and threatening. A crown of steel he bore, but between rim and robe naught was there to see, save only a deadly gleam of eyes: the Lord of the Nazgul.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”)
(A wonderful image by Donato Giancola)
JRRT could be a little touchy about influences—see, for instance, this from a surviving draft of a letter to a “Mr. Drang”:
“As in the case with Moria. In fact this first appeared in The Hobbit chap.1. It was there, as I remember, a casual ‘echo’ of Soria Moria Castle in one of the Scandinavian tales translated by Dasent. (The tale had no interest for me: I had already forgotten it and have never since looked at it. It was thus merely the source of the sound-sequence …” (Letters, 384)
(Tolkien mentions “Dasent”—who is actually Sir George W. Dasent—and “Scandinavian tales”—meaning his Popular Tales from the Norse (1859—actually a translation of a Norwegian work by Asbjornsen and Moe, 1843/4—and the two praised Dasent’s translation)—here’s a LINK for you for it: https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8933/pg8933-images.html –in which said castle appears, but I suspect that it’s more likely that he read it—or probably first had it read to him by his mother—in Andrew Lang’s 1890 The Red Fairy Book. Here’s a copy for you—https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Red_Fairy_Book )
And there’s only one direct mention of Milton in Letters (see page 344), but Tolkien was a Victorian, if a late one, which meant that, even as a schoolboy, he would have been exposed to what would then have been considered the core of English literature (and, to a degree, morality), poems like Paradise Lost (1667/1674)
(This is the 1674 edition, in which Milton made some changes to the text and redivided it from the original 10 into 12 books, inspired, I suspect, by the Aeneid. And here’s a LINK to a copy of that edition for you: https://archive.org/details/ParadiseLost1674CopyB )
and books like John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).
(If you don’t own a copy, here’s a LINK to an 1878 facsimile of the first edition: https://archive.org/details/pilgrimsprogress1878buny/page/n15/mode/2up )
There is also another echo, I think, in the same passage, where the Nazgul says to Eowyn:
“ ‘Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!’
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. ‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.’ “
(by Ted Nasmith)
In Act IV of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606?),
Macbeth is given a series of prophecies by the same witches who had appeared to him in Act I.
One of these prophecies (delivered by the “Apparition” of a “Bloody Childe”) is:
Be bloody, bold, & resolute:
Laugh to scorne
The powre of man: For none of woman borne
Shall harme Macbeth.”
(Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 1, 1619-1622)
This makes Macbeth quite cocky as he polishes off one opponent, Seyward, near the end of Act V, sneering at him as “borne of woman”. But then he meets MacDuff (“MacDuffe” in the spelling of the First Folio (1623), from which my text comes) and to his boast:
“I beare a charmed Life, which must not yield
To one of woman borne.”
“Dispaire thy Charme,
And let the Angell whom thou still hast serv’d
Tell thee, MacDuffe was from his Mother’s womb
(Macbeth, Act V, Scene 7, 2451-6)
Needless to say, “Exeunt fighting”—“they leave [the stage] fighting”, but only MacDuff reenters—carrying Macbeth’s head.
Although Tolkien professes an early dislike of Shakespeare (Letters, 213), there is no doubt that he had read Macbeth, as he expresses his disappointment in Shakespeare’s employment of Birnam Wood. Speaking of the Ents, he writes:
“Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill’. “
(Letter to W.H. Auden, 7 June, 1955, Letters, 212)
So, like it or not, somewhere in the back of JRRT’s capacious mind lay an image from Milton and an idea from Shakespeare, waiting to come together in a new and stirring scene.
Thanks, as always, for reading,
Avoid elderly ladies making suspicious stews in public,
And know that, as ever, there’s
But if Shakespeare was “disliked cordially” by JRRT, the present author loves him and perhaps you do, too. If so, you might enjoy reading him as I do, in the earliest editions, which give you a clearer sense of how “chewy” Shakespeare’s speech was. Here’s a LINK to the First Folio version of Macbeth so that you can see what I mean: https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/doc/Mac_F1/complete/index.html And, if you’d like to learn about the reconstructed pronunciation of south-central English in Shakespeare’s time, have a look at this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gi7IyqOjarA