Welcome, as ever, dear readers.
Unlike The Hobbit’s narrator’s description of the mouth of the River Running with its “every now and then a black and ominous crow”, I like crows. Perhaps it’s because of their elegant, almost regal, look–
and recent scientific studies have turned the crow from one of a noisy gang of scavengers
to something more than a birdbrain.
(This is a late rag—1959—by Joseph Lamb—1887-1960
and here’s a recording so that you can hear how Lamb conveyed the idea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYlPM0TJ9XY For me, Lamb is one of the best among the many ragtime composers and “Nightingale Rag”, 1915, performed here by William Oegmundson, is perhaps my favorite of his rags: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xnzoBXDL0Qw –just to keep the bird theme which is developing here. )
Instead, crows are extremely intelligent. Just look at this from the BBC series “Inside the Animal Mind”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbSu2PXOTOc
For Tolkien—at least for Tolkien’s dwarves in The Hobbit—even if crows showed avian genius, however, they were not the preferred bird:
“ ‘I only wish he was a raven!’ said Balin.
‘I thought that you did not like them! You seemed very shy of them, when we came this way before.’
‘Those were crows! And nasty suspicious-looking creatures at that, and rude as well. You must have heard the ugly names they were calling after us. But the ravens are different.’ “ (The Hobbit, Chapter 15, “The Gathering of the Clouds”)
Ravens are physically different to some degree from crows (size, feathering, calls, flying methods, basically),
but there is also one strong similarity: they both talk, as do birds throughout The Hobbit.
In succession, there are the Lord of the Eagles,
(one of my favorite Michael Hague illustrations)
and the eagle who carries Bilbo to the Carrock,
(a Ted Nasmith)
the thrush who not only signals the moment when the keyhole to the backdoor of Erebor will appear, but
(an Alan Lee)
who also told the archer, Bard, about Smaug’s weak spot,
(one version of Tolkien’s well-known drawing)
the ancient raven Roac, the son of Carc,
(another Alan Lee)
and, finally, the unnamed ravens who provide information on affairs outside the Lonely Mountain to the dwarves.
All of these feathery folk speak the Common Speech but one, the Thrush, and here it’s interesting to see that there is a linguistic tie between thrushes and the men of the now long-ruined Dale, as Bard discovers:
“Suddenly out of the dark something fluttered to his shoulder. He started—but it was only an old thrush. Unafraid it perched by his ear and it brought him news. Marveling he found he could understand his tongue, for he was of the race of Dale.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 14, “Fire and Water”)
If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I’m always interested in where JRRT’s ideas come from. Sometimes, as in the theft of the cup from Smaug in The Hobbit, it’s obvious: Beowulf, 2278-2306. (If you’d like to see this in the original Old English, along with a more literal translation, visit: https://heorot.dk/beo-intro-rede.html For another very interesting translation into modern English, see: https://oldenglishpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/beowulf/ This is an excellent site for reading Old English texts in translation, of which the site has a wide selection.)
In Bard’s understanding of the Thrush’s speech, I’m immediately reminded of something from Andrew Lang’s (1844-1912) The Red Fairy Book (1890).
(If you don’t own a copy, here it is: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/540/540-h/540-h.htm )
From the title of a story early in the volume, “Soria Moria Castle”, some have believed—and I’m among them—that JRRT had either read this book or had it read to him as a child, but it seems that there’s much more evidence from “The Story of Sigurd” for both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, including a broken sword whose pieces, collected, can be reforged (although it’s not called “Narsil”, “Firey Flame”, or “Anduril”, “Flame of the West”, but Gram, “grief/sorrow”), a sensitive ring (it changes temperature with dawn), as well as a ring with a curse on it, a horse “swift as the wind” (descended from Sleipnir, Odin’s horse, as Shadowfax was one of the chiefs of the Mearas, horses brought to Middle-earth by Orome, a Vala), a warrior maiden, and a human, who gaining the speech of birds, is then given a warning.
Even The Red Fairy Book might remind us of The Red Book of Westmarch, from which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are supposedly translated, but I want to go back to the human, the hero of the story, Sigurd, and his acquired ability to understand birds. He does so inadvertently, having sucked on a finger burnt while roasting the heart of Fafnir, a dragon he has killed. (This is, in fact, cousin to an Old Irish story, in which Fionn Mac Cumhaill—that’s “FEEN mac COO-vuhl” in Old Irish—after burning his thumb while cooking a salmon, sucks it and begins to gain all of the knowledge in the world. Here’s a quick reference for that story– https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salmon_of_Knowledge and some other parallels, as well.)
As Sigurd has gained his comprehension through his burned fingers, Bard has his understanding of the Thrush because , as Thorin tells Bilbo:
“The thrushes are good and friendly…They were a long-lived and magical race…The Men of Dale used to have the trick of understanding their language, and used them for messengers to fly to the Men of the Lake and elsewhere.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)
In an earlier posting, I’ve suggested that Tolkien had been influenced not only by The Red Fairy Book, but also by its predecessor, The Blue Fairy Book (1889),
(Find your copy at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/503/503-h/503-h.htm#link2H_4_0017 )
citing, for example, the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (called only “The Forty Thieves” here) and the fact that it requires a worded command to open a thieves’ cave, just as it requires the word “Mellon”, “Friend”, to enter the west gate to the Mines of Moria.
(a lovely Ted Nasmith)
On the subject of bird speech, as well, there are two main examples. In both cases, as with many of the birds in The Hobbit, the birds in these two stories can be understood and prove helpful to a major character.
In “Trusty John”, the John of the title saves the king and his queen three times, after he overhears three passing ravens discussing magic snares laid for them. In a second story, “The Water Lily” (also called “The Gold-Spinners”) the heroine, the third of three enchanted princesses, is able to employ a raven to help her to escape because “as a child she had learned to understand the speech of birds”. The raven, in turn, flies to a palace where the prince, her would-be rescuer, lives, and there finds “a wind wizard’s son in the palace garden, who understood the speech of birds”. Later in the story, it seems that, either some birds have acquired human speech, or the prince has somehow gained knowledge of theirs as he now understands and converses with a thrush, a magpie, a swallow, an eagle, and a crow, the latter reminding the prince that, having rescued the third princess, he must also rescue the other two princesses, whom he appears to have forgotten.
One hopes from this that at least one fairy tale figure admires crows as much as I do and does not regard them as Balin does, as “nasty, suspicious-looking creatures”.
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Think about holding a conversation with that interesting bird outside your window,
And remember that, as always, there’s
In case you’re still confused between crows and ravens, have a look at this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9-wTnqIidY
“Trusty John” comes to Lang from the Grimms, but “The Water Lily” is derived from a somewhat obscure source, an Estonian story, which you can read in English here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/503/503-h/503-h.htm#link2H_4_0017 It’s in a two-volume collection called The Hero of Esthonia, published by W.F. Kirby in 1895, where it appears in Vol. 1, pages 208-236, under its alternate title, “The Gold-Spinners”. My reference for this comes from a very helpful site on the Lang fairy books: https://langsfairyblog.wordpress.com/ which annotates many of the stories from the various volumes.
That last bird image is from Ukiyo-e, the world of Japanese block prints. If you love them as much as I do, and you don’t know this site, I recommend: https://ukiyo-e.org/