balbal, Carnac Stones, Cherna, Denis Gordeev, Druadan Forest, Dunharrow, Easter Island, Eored, Ghan-buri-Ghan, Gondor, menhirs, moai, Pukel-men, Rapa Nui, Rohan, Rohirrim, Stonewain Valley, Ted Nasmith, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, Unfinished Tales, Vsadniki, Woses
Welcome, dear readers, as ever.
After their mustering and rapid journey to the aid of Gondor, the Rohirrim
have been stopped:
“Scouts had been sent ahead. Some had not returned. Others hastening back had reported that the road was held in force against them. A host of the enemy was encamped upon it, three [4.8km]] miles west of Amon Din, and some strength of men was already thrusting along the road and was not more than three leagues [about 9 miles/14.5km] away.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 5, “The Ride of the Rohirrim”)
And so they are camped temporarily in the murk which has fallen over the West—a sign of Sauron on the move.
As they remain there, Merry gradually hears a sound like distant drums and, when Elfhelm, the Marshal of the eored [Rohirrim unit of horsemen] in which Merry and his mysterious companion, Dernhelm, are riding, stumbles over him, Merry asks if it’s the enemy:
“Are those their drums?”
“You hear the Woses, the Wild Men of the Woods…They still haunt Druadan Foest, it is said…But they have offered their services to Theoden. Even now one of their headmen is being taken to the king.”
Merry follows Elfhelm and soon sees:
“A large lantern, covered above, was hanging from a bough and cast a pale circle of light below. There sat Theoden and Eomer, and before them on the ground sat a strange squat shape of a man, gnarled as an old stone, and the hairs of his scanty beard straggled on his lumpy chin like dry moss. He was short-legged and fat-armed, thick and stumpy, and clad only with grass about his waist.”
This, we find out, is Ghan-buri-Ghan, leader of the Wild Men, who, as Elfhelm has said, has come to offer his and his people’s aid to Theoden.
(We note, by the way, that this Hildebrandt illustration has taken certain liberties with the scene as described in the book: it appears to be daylight—no lantern—if Eomer is there, he isn’t seated, and there is more than one Wild Man–oh, and the Wild Man’s beard has suddenly sprouted.)
What Ghan-buri-Ghan offers Theoden is a long-forgotten road which would provide a way around the soldiers of Sauron who are blocking the direct route to Minas Tirith: the path through the Stonewain Valley.
What caught our attention here was the connection Merry made between Ghan-buri-Ghan and something he’d encountered only recently:
“Merry felt that he had seen him before somewhere, and suddenly he remembered the Pukel-men of Dunharrow. Here was one of those old images brought to life, or maybe a creature descended in true line through endless years from the models used by the forgotten craftsmen long ago.”
was a mysterious place—
“…the work of long-forgotten men. Their name was lost and no song or legend remembered it. For what purpose they had made this place, as a town or secret temple or a tomb of kings, none in Rohan could say. Here they labored in the Dark Years, before ever a ship came to the western shores, or Gondor of the Dunedain was built; and now they had vanished, and only the old Pukel-men were left, still sitting at the turnings of the road.
Merry stared at the lines of marching stones: they were worn and black; some were leaning, some were fallen, some cracked or broken; they looked like rows of old and hungry teeth.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 3, “The Muster of Rohan”)
For a moment, this description reminded us of something one sees in Brittany, on the west coast of France, the so-called “Carnac Stones”, a vast field of Neolithic upright stones, now called menhirs (Breton for “long stone”) in long lines in and around the village of Carnac.
And, just as the use or meaning of Dunharrow is lost, so is that of the elaborate construction of the Carnac Stones.
Once the Carnac Stones—and others like them, both in France and in Great Britain—came into our heads, we were whirled away to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and all of those puzzling outsized heads on less-developed torsos, the moai.
It was not the size or placement of those figures like “rows of old and hungry teeth” however, which made us think further about Ghan-buri-Ghan and his stony cousins, but how the figures were carved:
“At each turn of the road there were great standing stones that had been carved in the likeness of men, huge and clumsy-limbed, squatting cross-legged with their stumpy arms folded on fat bellies. Some in the wearing of the years had lost all features save the dark holes of their eyes that still stared sadly at the passers-by. The Riders hardly glanced at them. The Pukel-men they called them, and heeded them little…”
As the Rohirrim are translated as speaking among themselves a sort of Tolkien-adapted Old English, so “pukel” appears to be derived from “pucel” = “goblin/demon”, which suggests perhaps a quasi-religious or magical use, but, if they once represented spirits, they are now spiritless, with no ability to frighten. Rather, as the narrator tells us:
“…no power or terror was left in them; but Merry gazed at them with wonder and a feeling almost of pity, as they loomed up mournfully in the dusk.”
The narrator’s elaboration then reminded us of something else: balbal.
These are carved stone figures with a history probably as long as that of the Pukel-men. They appear to be the product of Turkic peoples in Central Asia—with even older relatives, perhaps, to the west, as well. Some may have been tomb guardians or monuments themselves—as with the Pukel-men, their origins and use/s are lost to us. We ourselves have stolen them for use in our series of novels based in an imaginary medieval fairy tale Russia, called Cherna, “The Black Land”—but please don’t think “Mordor?” In our case, the reason it’s named that is that it is steppe country with extremely fertile black soil. So rich, especially as pasture-land, that it’s worth invading and fighting over, which is what the villains of our trilogy, the Vsadniki, modeled on the Mongols, do.
Unlike Pukel-men and menhirs and moai, however, there is no mystery about what the Vsadniki are up to with their stones: every time they conquer a new land, they set such stones up at their new far-western border to say not only “what’s behind these is ours”, but also “and we’re looking at your lands next”.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
In the Tolkien volume Unfinished Tales, we find further connections between the Wild Men/Woses and carvings. We use a paperback edition and this has somewhat different pagination from the hardbound, but, should you be interested, you can find it in either form in Part Four, I The Druedain.
Here is a drawing of Ghan-buri-Ghan by Denis Gordeev, who has done a good deal of work illustrating a wide selection of JRRT’s fiction, rather as Ted Nasmith has, along with many other classics as well as modern fantasy fiction.
Gordeev has clearly been trained/trained himself in drawing as people did in that golden age of children’s writing and illustration, the 1880s to 1920s, and, once you get used to his very distinctive style, you may come to like it as we do. Here’s Gandalf arriving in Hobbiton, fireworks and all, just to give you a taste.