As always, dear readers, welcome.  If you read us regularly, you know that we love epics of all sorts and periods and cultures.  We have also been dictionary readers since we were children.  So, when, recently, we heard someone say that something was an “epic fail”, it caught our ear in both an epic and lexicographic (what a great word!) way.  Consequently, we thought that it might be fun to do a little investigating and thinking out loud a little about the use of “epic” in that expression

We began by asking ourselves:  what is an epic that it can be (silently) compared to something else, in this case, a kind of disaster?

Examples of epics immediately came to mind:  the Iliad,

and the Odyssey,

and the Aeneid

all long stories in verse.  And we quickly added Beowulf,


and Mahabharata,

all also long poems in verse, the Mahabharata being said to be the longest of all epics, 200,000 verses long (in contrast, the Iliad has 15,693, while the Aeneid has only 9,896 lines). 

The word “epic” itself is from Greek epos, which has a number of possible translations, but, at base, means “something spoken”.  This can easily be understood as “something told” and could refer to the work of the first Greek singers, the aoidoi (ah-oy-DOY).

 In Homer, we often see the word in the plural, as part of the phrase  epea pteroenta, literally “words with wings”.  This is used when people speak a lot and/or rapidly, which seems sensible, especially if you’re making a reply or trying to persuade someone of something.  There may also be a small poetic  joke here, as well, as epea can also mean “lines of verse”, so a character might be said to be speaking in “winged verses” in Homer, at the same time as “winged words”.

“Epic” is an adjective formed from epos, and appears to have become part of the English language during the Elizabethan era.  The first known citation comes from George Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesie (1589), where Puttenham calls John Hardyng (1378-1465), who wrote a rhymed chronicle of the history of England, “a Poet Epicke or Historicall” (Puttenham, Part I, Chapter 31).  We’ve sampled a manuscript version of Hardyng’s chronicle in the very useful edition of Simpson and Peverley (and you can, too, at this LINK:  https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/simpson-pevereley-hardyng-chronicle )  but, although it has the length of a shorter epic (7,042 lines), we would be reluctant to say that Hardyng would ever have the popularity of Homer or Vergil or Valmiki, the poet of the Ramayana.

Still, if you go to the always-handy Etymonline, you’ll find “epic” defined (digesting a longer definition in The Oxford English Dictionary) as, “pertaining to or constituting a lengthy heroic poem.”

And “lengthy”, as you can see, would certainly would fit all of the epics mentioned above, including Puttenham’s Hardyng.  So, on the one hand, “epic” in “epic fail” could mean something gone wrong on a scale as big as an epic is long:  after all, the war at Troy has been going on for 9 years when the Iliad takes place, and Beowulf covers the full extent of the hero’s life. 

But then there’s that word “heroic”. 

If we follow that definition, is an “epic fail”, which we’re assuming is something rather grand, also somehow heroic?

We don’t have any more information about our original quotation:  it was probably just something which zoomed past our eyes on the internet, or we heard someone say in passing on the radio.  Applying a text from our list of epics, we thought about Hector, the son of Priam, the king of Troy, and the main hero on the Trojan side.  The Iliad doesn’t have much to say about him for the previous 9 years, but he’s active in the current one although, even as the chief warrior on the Trojan side, he never appears to have faced the chief Greek warrior, Achilles, until their confrontation in Book 22.  Here, Hector is ashamed to retreat, but acts as a kind of rear guard for the Trojans until he’s facing Achilles by himself.

And then everything goes wrong for him:  he loses his nerve and Achilles chases him three times around the walls of Troy; he throws his spear, which bounces off Achilles’ shield; he thinks that his brother, Deiphobus, has come to help him, but it’s actually a hostile Athena masquerading; sword drawn, he charges and Achilles stabs him at the base of his throat; when he begs for a decent burial, Achilles says that the dogs and birds will eat his body.  And, after he dies, all of the other Greeks gather around to stab his corpse (now they’re brave), then Achilles puts holes in Hector’s feet, runs a line through the holes, ties the line to the back of his chariot, and drags him around the walls of Troy while Hector’s wife and parents look on in horror.

If anything could be described as an “epic fail”, we would propose that it would be the combat with Achilles and the death of Hector.  But was the comment we overheard or read about such a grim and dramatic event as to merit such a comparison?

And this is where another source comes in.  The Oxford English Dictionary, begun in 1857, when it comes to richness of source material, is a wonderful thing—we used it to find that reference to Puttenham.  At the same time, to keep up-to-date on what’s going on in contemporary English, we often dip into Urban Dictionary.  If you know this source, you know that some of those who contribute are often less than enthusiastic about other people’s word choices.  So, to gain another viewpoint, we consulted Urban Dictionary and found, among other references:

“Epic Fail -A mistake of such monumental proportions that it requires its own term in order to successfully point out the unfathomable shortcomings of an individual or group.”

Not quite Homeric, but okay. 

Then again, there was this:

“A word that used to be used to describe a book, a movie or other work as timeless, great, and meaningful. Is now used by [unprintable word:  substitute “the less intelligent”] who combine it with “win” or “fail” to describe everyday things…

[unprintable word–substitute “speaker”] #1: I forgot my wallet so I had to go home and get it.
[same unprintable word:  substitute “speaker] #2: EPIC FAIL!”

So, was what we saw or overheard, by its use of the expression, its own epic fail?

Thanks, as ever, for reading,

Stay well,

And know that




We found the reference to Puttenham in the Oxford English Dictionary (upon which JRRT was once engaged, in 1919-1920—here’s the LINK to a really interesting article on his work there:  https://public.oed.com/blog/jrr-tolkien-and-the-oed/ ).  If you’d like to see the Puttenham for yourself, here’s a LINK:


If nothing else, it’s very interesting to see just how much earlier English literature Puttenham had available to him in the 1580s. 

Seein’ Things

As always, dear readers, welcome.  We begin with a quotation:

“Look out! Look out!
Pink elephants on parade
Here they come!
They’re here and there
Pink elephants everywhere

Look out! Look out!
They’re walking around the bed, on their head
Arrayed in braid
Pink elephants on parade

What’ll I do? What’ll I do?
What an unusual view!
I could stand the sight of worms
And look at microscopic germs
But technicolor pachyderms
Is really too much for me

I am not the type to faint
When things are odd or things are quaint
But seeing things you know that ain’t
Can certainly give you an awful fright!
What a sight!

Chase ’em away!
Chase ’em away!
I’m afraid, need your aid
Pink elephants on parade!

Pink elephants!
Pink elephants!”

All right, patient readers are asking, what in the world is this?  And where will you go with it?

It’s, in fact, from Walt Disney’s 1941 movie, Dumbo.

If you’re not familiar with this film, it’s about a very small elephant with very large ears who discovers that, using his ears, he can fly.  His real name is “Jumbo, Junior”, which is clearly based upon the name of the  first famous elephant in modern history, Jumbo, who lived his adult life beginning in the Jardin des Plantes,

in Paris, then in the Zoological Gardens in London,

and finally in the circus world of the American entrepreneur, P.T. Barnum.

(If you’d like a copy of the autobiography of Jumbo’s keeper at the London zoo and a biography of Jumbo, here’s a LINK:  https://ia803204.us.archive.org/4/items/autobiographyofm00scot/autobiographyofm00scot.pdf )

In the story, Dumbo’s only friend is a mouse, named Timothy, which is its own joke on the traditional idea that elephants are afraid of mice.

with whom, by accident, he becomes intoxicated

and suddenly, the two have a vision:  Pink Elephants!  which is accompanied by a very strange song, the words of which we’ve quoted above.

Here’s the LINK to a clip of this:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcZUPDMXzJ8

Normally, this is said to be something which long-time alcoholics are traditionally said to see, but it makes for quite a scene in the film, as we’re sure you’ll agree!

In this scene, we were inspired by these lines:

“I am not the type to faint
When things are odd or things are quaint
But seeing things you know that ain’t
Can certainly give you an awful fright!
What a sight!”

to think about another story where people see things they “know that ain’t”.  And, as Tolkien is never far from our minds, or these pages, we were on Weathertop,

When the Wraiths first appear, they are described as

“…three or four tall black figures…standing there on the slope, looking down on them.  So black were they that they seemed like black holes in the deep shade around them…” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 11, “A Knife in the Dark”)

And then Frodo slips on the Ring and:

“Immediately, though everything else remained as before, dim and dark, the shapes became terribly clear.  He was able to see beneath their black wrappings.  There were five tall figures:  two standing on the lip of the dell, three advancing.  In their white faces burned keen and merciless eyes; under their mantles were long grey robes; upon their grey hairs were helms of silver; in their haggard hands were swords of steel.”

Frodo sees the Ring Wraiths for what they really are because, by putting on the Ring, he enters its world, and that of the Wraiths, which appears to be a kind of twilight place between Middle-earth and someplace else—in a sense, a “place that ain’t”, as the Wraiths are a kind of ghost, doomed to haunt the world only while the Ring exists (or, in the case of their chief, when a weapon from the past catches him). 

 This made us wonder, what would the Ring allow its rightful owner, Sauron, to see?  When Frodo puts on the Ring again, to escape Boromir, and climbs up Amon Hen, the Ring still on his finger:


“At first he could see little.  He seemed to be in a world of mist in which there were only shadows:  the Ring was upon him.  Then here and there the mist gave way and he saw many visions:  small and clear as if they were under his eyes upon a table, and yet remote.  There was no sound, only bright living images.  The world seemed to have shrunk and fallen silent.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 10, “The Breaking of the Fellowship”)

Even if silent, this is a teeming world:

“But everywhere he looked he saw the signs of war.  The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills:  orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes.  Under the boughs of Mirkwood there was deadly stife of Elves and Men and fell beasts.  The land of the Beornings was aflame; a cloud was over Moria; smoke rose on the borders of Lorien.”

But, reading this, we were a little puzzled.  Although some of this we know to be happening—certainly in Moria— much of the rest is yet to come in the story.  If this is Sauron’s view, are he and Frodo actually “seein’ things you know that ain’t” and the Ring shares some power (and danger) with Galadriel’s Mirror?  As she says:

“Remember that the Mirror shows many things, and not all have yet come to pass.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 7, “The Mirror of Galadriel”)

If so, then should both take note of her warning?

“Some never come to be, unless those that behold the visions turn aside from their path to prevent them.  The Mirror is dangerous as a guide to deeds.”

As a possible guide to Sauron’s mind and its imaginings, we want to return to this idea in another posting, but, as we started out with a strange, but still somehow jolly vision, we’d like to conclude with an odd and comic one, the present time being dark enough as it is!

In 1950, there appeared a film, based upon Mary Chase’s 1944 play, Harvey.

The basic story is about Elwood P. Dowd, played by the well-known actor of the period, James Stewart,

a gentle, quiet man, who spends much of the play/film in the company—so he says—of a 6’3”  (190.5cm) tall rabbit named “Harvey”.  Dowd lives with his sister, who is constantly embarrassed by Dowd’s insistence that Harvey is not only real, but extremely wise, and his seeming assumption that everyone can see him.   Unfortunately, at least initially, no one else can see Harvey, including Dowd’s sister, who, eventually attempts to have Dowd committed to an insane asylum.  In a complex turn of events, however, Dowd’s sister is the one who is (temporarily) committed and the doctor who examines Dowd not only can see Harvey, but finds him a very pleasant companion.  The film ends happily—although, until the very end, it’s difficult to know if Harvey is a figment of (several) people’s imagination, or real…

We know that the pink elephants were the result of accidental intoxication.  And Frodo sees the Wraiths and possibly a form of the future because of the Ring.  Harvey simply appears, as Dowd explains, and strikes up a friendly conversation.  Perhaps, considering those weird pachyderms, and the terrors of the Ring’s world, meeting a very tall and perhaps invisible but benevolent rabbit, would be a vision which we would prefer that we did see?  As Dowd says to the doctor:  “Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.”

Thanks, as ever, for reading, stay well, and be sure that there’s




Jumbo also inspired a famous classical piano piece.  It comes from Claude Debussy’s (1862-1918) Children’s Corner Suite, first published in 1908, and it is entitled “Jimbo’s Lullabye”.  Here’s a LINK:

(“Jimbo” appears to be a corruption, through the French pronunciation of “u”, of Jumbo.)

In Living Color?

Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

Recently, we’ve been watching the old Walt Disney Zorro, first series and very much enjoying it.


By the time Disney’s version appeared, in 1957, Zorro had had—for film—a long history.

It had begun in 1919 with a 5-part serialized novella by Johnston McCulley, “The Curse of Capistrano”.


Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., a famous early-20th-century silent movie star, appears to have realized the character’s potential and almost immediately appeared as Don Diego Vega (the “de la” came later) in 1920, in The Mark of Zorro, which, in our opinion, is a film still worth watching, if nothing else for Fairbanks’ own stuntwork.


(The Internet Archive has this—for free–https://archive.org/details/markofzorro-1920   We are big fans of silent film and the IA has lots of them, if you enjoy this one.)

After that initial film, a number of others have appeared, (here’s a LINK to what may be a complete—and rather overwhelming list:  https://zorro.fandom.com/wiki/List_of_Zorro_Films )   including our favorites, the 1940 The Mark of Zorro


and the 1998 The Mask of Zorro.


Our boxed set was in black-and-white and, while we were watching, although it was great fun, we kept wondering what it would be like in color.   As a project, then, we thought that it might be interesting to do a little image research and come up with models for our own “colorizing”—and, as we did our research, we were rather surprised at what we found.

We began with the very elaborate Disney set of “Los Angeles”, about 1820.


(This is a beautiful Disney model of the downtown.)

This appears to have been mainly constructed of adobe—mud brick, plastered over, and the colors might have looked something like these—


And here is where our first surprise appeared.

In reality, this “Los Angeles” has almost nothing to do with the real Los Angeles of 1820.  Here is the original, in the first picture we’ve found of it, dated 1847.


And here’s the first photo (daguerreotype?), from 1869.


The major building in the first picture, labeled “church”, and on the left in the 1869 photograph, was consecrated in 1822 and, as “La Placita”, much changed, is still there.



The set model, perhaps because it is meant to be a Los Angeles of about 1820, doesn’t show us this, but the early illustrations also don’t show us any of the two-story buildings which appear in the model.  And, more striking, the presidio (“military base”, or cuartel, meaning “barracks”, as it’s labeled on the wall of the set)


is missing, as well.  What about the “lancers” as they’re called in the series?  Where were they living?


Our second surprise:  there seems, in fact, to have been no garrison at all in Los Angeles in 1820.  There were four presidios at that time in what was called Alta California, at San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco, each being the headquarters for a military district.  In reality, then, we presume, since Los Angeles was between San Diego and Santa Barbara—see map below—


that, should it ever need soldiers, they would come from either of those two presidios.

The soldiers who might have been sent were not technically lancers—although they carried lances, along with carbines, pistols, and swords.  Instead, they were dragones de cuera, “leather dragoons”, Spanish frontier soldiers so-called because they also wore a kind of leather armor and even carried leather shields as protection against the arrows of the Native American tribes they occasionally came up against.


Underneath the leather, however, they wore a uniform much like the ones Zorro’s “lancers” wear.




Because they could be attached to a presidio, they were also sometimes called presidiales.

As we’ve said, there was no presidio at Los Angeles, but we think that the actual presidios of Alta California served as models.  Take, for example, this map of that at San Diego from 1820


or this reconstruction of the installation at San Francisco.


In both cases, just like the “cuartel” at Zorro’s Los Angeles, there is a walled enclosure with a selection of buildings inside.

If the buildings on Disney’s set weren’t there in 1820 and there were no soldiers, we could still “colorize” them, of course, but was there anything which might match the actual Los Angeles of 1820?  And here we thought:  how about the citizens?  During that period, Los Angeles had about 650 people, many scattered on farms and the growing haciendas of the region, which became known for its leather, as well as for its grapes.

Images of people who would have lived in Los Angeles in the 1820s don’t appear to be easy to find, but we could locate parallels from those of two artists who worked in Mexico in the 1830s and early 1840s, Carl Nebel and James Walker, and, with the exception of the last image, these are all from their work.

Here are a couple of portraits of those at the top of society.



To the right in the second picture is a vaquero, literally, a “cowboy”, who worked for the hacienda owners, and here’s an image of several at work.


And we can add some folk perhaps a little lower on the social scale—




Then, as we continued our research, came our third surprise:  the Disney studio had been ahead of us in all of this, having eventually themselves colorized a number of the episodes!


It was a pleasure to do the research, however, and, even if the Los Angeles of Zorro wasn’t the Los Angeles of our 1820, it gave us a keener appreciation for the high quality of imagination and construction skill which continues to bring us—in color or in black-and-white—so much adventure and fun.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Stay well and know that, as ever, there’s




In 1924, The Mark of Zorro appeared as a novel.  Here’s a LINK so that, if you’d like, you can read it for yourself:   https://www.gutenberg.org/files/61620/61620-h/61620-h.htm


In our research, we stumbled upon this article—in color—about surviving Zorro/Don Diego costumes and we thought that you might enjoy it:



“But the Ring was lost.  It fell into the Great River, Anduin, and vanished.  For Isildur was marching north along the east banks of the River, and near the Gladden Fields he was waylaid by the Orcs of the Mountains, and almost all his folk were slain.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)


(Here’s a map to help you to orient yourself.)

Welcome, as ever, dear readers.  Gandalf is about to tell Frodo—and us–about what, in the orthography of the Pooh books, might be written as What Happened Next (although that “next” is relative, there being over 2400 years between the Ring’s loss and Deagol’s finding it, about which Gandalf is going to speak).  As interesting and important as his explanation is, however, in this post we are going to stop right here, at that word “waylaid”, meaning “ambushed”.

In Unfinished Tales, edited by Christopher Tolkien, there is much more detail about this event, beginning with:

“To their right the Forest loomed above them at the top of steep slopes running down to their path, below which the descent into the valley-bottom was gentler.”

Suddenly as the sun plunged into cloud they heard the hideous cries of Orcs, and saw them issuing from the Forest and moving down the slopes, yelling their war-cries.”  (Unfinished Tales, 284 in the Ballentine paperback edition)

Even though it’s clear from Gandalf’s narrative that this part of the story of the Ring was not common knowledge (“And there in the dark pools amid the Gladden Fields…the Ring passed out of knowledge and legend, and even so much of its history is known now to only a few…” he says to Frodo), this ambush was a major moment in the history of Middle-earth.  Thinking about it and where Isildur and his men were waylaid—a body of water to one side, steep, wooded ground to the other—immediately reminded us of two important ambushes from the distant past of our Middle-earth.

Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general, in order to force Rome to break off its second war with his country, had invaded Italy, crossing the Alps with his army—and one surviving elephant—in 218BC.


Having defeated one Roman army at the Trebbia in the same year, Hannibal was the target of new Roman efforts the next (217BC).  Unfortunately for the Romans, Hannibal was a more skillful general than his opponent, Gaius Flaminius, and lured the Romans into a terrible trap.


Hannibal very ostentatiously pitched his camp at the far end of the northern shore of Lake Trasimene, but concealed his troops in the wooded hills above the road.  The Romans, believing that they had a good chance of pinning the usually wily Carthaginian general, marched along the lake road, making for the camp.  When it was clear that the Romans had so far advanced that their rear guard was under the shadow of the hills, Hannibal gave the signal, the trap was closed at both ends, and the battle began with the unsuspecting Romans slammed into from three directions at once.


As the fourth direction was the lake, many Romans were driven into it and were drowned,


their general, Flaminius was killed, and only about a third of his army managed to escape, mainly by pushing through the troops in front of Hannibal’s camp.

Although there was no river or lake in our second ancient ambush, there was a huge bog—in northwestern Germany, in 9AD.


Since the days of Julius Caesar in the last century BC, the Romans had pushed to extend their control eastward from their possessions in Gaul.  Celtic Gaul, with its towns and its centuries of contact with Greek traders and trade goods, was relatively easy to conquer (reading Caesar’s account of his campaigns in Gaul, “relatively” is definitely a relative word, however).  Germania, heavily wooded, with no large settlements, only farms here and there in clearings, and bands of tribal warriors




was much less promising, but the Romans had made progress since Augustus had become emperor (30BC)—or thought that they had.

In their earlier struggles, they had defeated the leader, Segimer, (Segimerus, in Latin) of a powerful western tribe, the Cherusci, and, according to Roman practice, had forced him to turn over several of his children as hostages.  One of these, whom we know as Arminius (we don’t know what his family called him, just what the Romans did), given high status and military training, seemed to be a promising addition to the Romanification of German lands.  Seemed, however, is the correct verb as, once he returned to his homeland as a Roman officer, he used his family’s connections to create a league of tribes for the purpose of driving his adopted people from his native country.

His plan fell into place when he tricked the local Roman commander, P. Quinctilius Varus, into believing that there was a local uprising and that he should march to suppress it as soon as possible.  Varus took the major part of the Roman garrison—at least 20,000 men—on local paths (no paved Roman roads in this part of the world) deep into the forests


where thousands of warriors were waiting, many on a wooded hillside to the south of the narrow Roman march route.


In open country, when Romans were attacked, their training allowed them to snap into defensive formations which, if necessary, could protect them from any direction.


With their soldiers strung out for miles along a forest path, a hillside to one side, a swamp to the other, their training was of little help, however,





and the majority of the Romans—nearly all 20,000, it is thought—were killed or taken prisoner, to be sold as slaves or perhaps sacrificed as thank-offerings.

After this disaster, the Romans never seriously attempted to march deeper into Germanic lands, but contented themselves with constructing a long defensive line to their south, the so-called Limes Germanicus (“German Frontier”—literally, “German threshold”).


We’ve mentioned Isildur’s fatal ambush, from long before The Lord of the Rings, but there is another ambush within the text itself:  the attack by Faramir’s men upon a unit of Southrons, in the chapter entitled “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”.  It’s where Sam gets to see his “oliphaunt”, of course,


but, for us, the more moving moment is something else which Sam sees:

“Then suddenly straight over the rim of their sheltering bank, a man fell, crashing through the slender trees, nearly on top of them.  He came to rest in the fern a few feet away, face downward, green arrow-feathers sticking from his neck below a golden collar…It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much.  He was glad that he could not see the dead face.  He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace…” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 4, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”)

As we linked the ambush at the Gladden Fields to those at Lake Trasimene and the Teutoburg Forest, so we link this, presumed to be a sad response to what happened in Germany in 9AD, to Sam’s reaction.


It’s what’s called a cenotaph, Greek for “empty tomb”.  In the Greco-Roman world, everyone who was not buried properly would suffer in the afterlife, and so, even if it were only a token, like Antigone scattering dust over her dead brother in Sophocles’ play, the dead had to be given some kind of burial.  The inscription says that Publius Caelius erected this stone to his brother, Marcus Caelius, a senior officer in the 18th Legion, from Bologna in northern Italy, who, at 53-and-a-half, died in the “Varian War”, meaning what was hardly a war, but more like a massacre, in the Teutoburg Forest.

Sam’s Southron was just an anonymous soldier in an anonymous unit.  Marcus Caelius was a career military man, high up in a well-known unit.  Still, we wonder, like Sam, what led him from his home and whether he would like to have stayed there in peace.

As always, thanks for reading.

Stay well





A Special Treat

Welcome, as ever, dear readers!


This posting is a first:  a guest contribution.  It’s from our excellent friend, Erik, who is the man working on the map of Middle-earth (stay tuned, as always, for more on this in the future).  We don’t claim to be JRRT experts, being more generalists of adventure, so this is a more detailed look at something about which we wrote a few weeks ago.  We hope that you enjoy it as much as we did.


CD’s post of 22 July titled “How do we get there?” explores the use and non-use of maps at the end of the Third Age in Middle-earth, concluding from evidence in The Hobbit that small-scale maps (that is, maps that show a great deal of territory) may not have existed to any appreciable extent, and that the few far-ranging travellers must have relied primarily upon their own memories.

1. McKellenΓÇöI have no memory of this place.jpg

While it’s certainly true that — notwithstanding Gandalf’s temporary setback at one particular intersection of passages in Moria — widely travelled characters in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings seem indeed to have prodigious mental models of territories that they have crossed years or even decades earlier, maps constitute a larger portion of the cultural fabric of late Third-Age Middle-earth than is apparent at first blush.

2. JRRTΓÇöThrorΓÇÖs map

3. NasmithΓÇöGandalf and Thorin at Bree.jpg

4. NasmithΓÇöThe unexpected party

DC’s students quite naturally brought up Thror’s map in The Hobbit as one example, but quickly shot it down again as “not useful” — which is fair enough in terms of making the nearly thousand-mile journey from the Shire to the Lonely Mountain, given that it could be used as a guide only on the last stage of their journey: from the easternmost fringe of Mirkwood.

5. JRRTΓÇöWilderland.jpg

The other obvious map in The Hobbit is Tolkien’s map of Wilderland — roughly, the area from just west of Rivendell east through the River Running, and from the Grey Mountains in the north down through two-thirds of Mirkwood. This map too, though, should be discounted — albeit for a different reason altogether. At first look, this would be a very useful map for the Dwarves and Bilbo to follow. Looking more closely, though, one can see that it’s almost too useful. Elrond? Beorn? [Eagle’s] Eyrie? And Hobbiton‽ No Middle-earthly map other than those from the Shire would include Hobbiton, and none at all would include the Eyrie. We can conclude that this is a map from our own world: it’s not meant to be a reproduction of a Middle-earth map — and to corroborate this, we can find an early form of Tolkien’s own JRRT monogram in the lower right corner.

But there are other maps hidden in the text of The Hobbit. The Dwarves complain, for example, on the road to Rivendell that “the old maps are no use: things have changed for the worse and the road is unguarded.” Their grumbling about the old maps implies either that there are no new maps to be had or perhaps that there are new maps but that the Dwarves didn’t have them.

6. LOTROΓÇöElrondΓÇÖs library

I don’t remember any mention of maps in Rivendell within The Hobbit, but they’re mentioned quite clearly in The Lord of the Rings.

“Aragorn and Gandalf walked together or sat speaking of their road and the perils they would meet; and they pondered the storied and figured maps and books of lore that were in the house of Elrond. Sometimes Frodo was with them; but he was content to lean on their guidance….” [LRC 2.03.050]

So Gandalf and Bilbo (and remember, we are told near both the beginning and the end of The Hobbit that Bilbo “loved maps”), and perhaps some of the Dwarves, would have had the chance to consult maps in Rivendell. And in fact, the narrator reports at the close of “A Short Rest” (the Rivendell chapter of The Hobbit) that the company

“rode away … with a knowledge of the road they must follow over the Misty Mountains to the land beyond.”

7. JRRTΓÇöThe mountain path.jpg

Since we’ve brought up The Lord of the Rings, this might be a good moment to mention some of the Hobbits other than Bilbo. Was Bilbo unusual in his love of maps?

After Bilbo left Bag End, Frodo “looked at maps, and wondered what lay beyond their edges: maps made in the Shire showed mostly white spaces beyond its borders.” [LRC 1.02.008] This tells us, of course, that there were at least local maps made in the Shire, and that Frodo enjoyed looking at them — so in this he appears to take after Bilbo.

8. StracheyΓÇöThe Ring goes south

As the new Fellowship travelled south from Rivendell, Gandalf asked Pippin (who had a good enough sense of direction and geography that he knew to be puzzled when the Misty Mountains were seen ahead of them when they were ostensibly heading south):

“‘There are many maps in Elrond’s house, but I suppose you never thought to look at them?’

“‘Yes I did, sometimes,’ said Pippin, ‘but I don’t remember them. Frodo has a better head for that sort of thing.’” [LRC 2.3.101102]

And here we can see both further corroboration that Frodo shared Bilbo’s (and, implicitly, Gandalf’s) facility with maps, and also an indication that Pippin probably didn’t. But perhaps more interestingly, we’re made aware that maps were important enough that Pippin looked at them — more than once — even though he didn’t have a head “for that sort of thing.”

After their defeat by Caradhras — yet before they enter Moria — comes my favorite map reference, in the voice of the narrator just after Sam expressed his hope of their imminent arrival at Mount Doom:

9. Sam looks out with Frodo.jpg

“Maps conveyed nothing to Sam’s mind, and all distances in these strange lands seemed so vast that he was quite out of his reckoning.” [LRC 2.03.128]

10. BaynesΓÇöThere and back again

Of course, when you get right down to it, the route that Bilbo, Gandalf, and the Dwarves would’ve planned to take was actually incredibly simple — rather like taking Interstate 70 across the United States; no map should really have been needed for the vast majority of the journey “there and back again,” for the East Road led right from the front door of Bag End all the way to the River Running, as Frodo quoted Bilbo as often saying:

“Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain…?” [LRC 1.03.075]

The path didn’t go quite that far — though it was indeed the same path as the “Mountain Path” through the Misty Mountains pictured above, and also as the “Old Forest Road” through Mirkwood. It ended at the River Running, which could easily be followed upstream past Esgaroth directly to Erebor (the Lonely Mountain).

And this may well have been the party’s original plan — but of course Beorn

“had warned them that that way was now often used by the goblins, while the forest-road itself, he had heard, was overgrown and disused at the eastern end and led to impassable marshes where the paths had long been lost. Its eastern opening had also always been far to the south of the Lonely Mountain, and would have left them still with a long and difficult northward march when they got to the other side.”

11. NasmithΓÇöEntering Mirkwood.jpg

Instead, “north of the Carrock the edge of Mirkwood drew closer to the borders of the Great River, and though here the Mountains too drew down nearer, Beorn advised them to take this way; for at a place a few days’ ride due north of the Carrock was the gate of a little-known pathway through Mirkwood that led almost straight towards the Lonely Mountain.

Presumably this “little-known” path was not on the “old maps” in Rivendell, or they would have had that as their plan from the get-go. And this brings up the question of where the map-makers had got to. Why were “old maps” the only ones around?

CD has written before about the deterioration, diminution, and dwindling of the North Kingdom and indeed of most of the west of Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age. Without a thriving population and state, both the demand and the industrial and cultural infrastructure required for creating up-to-date small-scale maps would be lacking.

12. DurandΓÇöForest track

I’ll leave you with a final puzzlement that I’ll be thinking about: just why was the Old Forest Road built to reach the River Running at a place where we have no map evidence for any settlement or population center? Who built it? When? And whom was it built to serve?

Thank you, Erik, and, as always, thank you, good readers!

Stay well, and be assured of



Heads Up!

As ever, welcome, dear readers.

If you regularly follow us, you know that we reread the “Alice” books some weeks ago, beginning with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).


In that first volume, we meet the Red Queen,


whose favorite command is “Off with his/her/their head/s!”

Looking at Tenniel’s original illustration, we see what appears to be a small, plump woman perhaps of middle age? with a large mouth and a dictatorial manner.   Tenniel (1820-1914) was famous as a political cartoonist for the satirical magazine Punch   (here’s a sample, called “Dropping the Pilot”—local pilots being used to guide ships outside harbors into ports—


in which we see the new Kaiser Wilhelm II—at the top of the picture–getting rid of Otto von Bismarck, the statesman whose work had turned Prussia from the junior partner in the German-speaking world in 1860 to the center of the new German Empire in 1871.).


(That’s Bismarck, in the white uniform.)

Tenniel’s reputation then made us wonder:  was his choice of how to depict the Red Queen just fantasy, or was he having fun with someone?  We had a look at what we thought might be a typical deck of Victorian playing cards.


There’s the Queen of Hearts, lower left.  Comparing her with the Tenniel, other than the clothing, there doesn’t appear to be much similarity.  Perhaps, we thought, Tenniel used another deck—or perhaps he had a different model?


In any event, the Red Queen’s favorite sentence (in both senses) made us think where the cutting off of heads turns up in our favorite fiction beyond Alice.  After a few moments, here were the first examples which came to mind.

We begin with the 14th-century Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—and there’s a Tolkien connection with this, as he collaborated with E.V. Gordon to publish a critical edition of the poem in 1925.


In the poem, a mysterious figure, dressed all in green, appears at King Arthur’s court on New Year’s Day  and offers a wager:  he will allow one of Arthur’s knights to take a whack at him with his axe if, in a year and a day, that knight will come to him and allow him to do the same to that knight.  After some hesitation, Sir Gawain agrees and, with one blow, beheads the figure—who then picks up his head, mounts his horse, and reminds Sir Gawain that they have a date.


What happens in a year and a day?  If you want to know more, you might read it in the original, using the Gordon/Tolkien (revised and republished in 1967).  If you’ve already enjoyed Chaucer in Middle English, you’ve got a good start, but this is written not in the London area dialect.  Instead, it’s in a northern dialect and is a bit tougher (there is a very useful glossary with the Gordon/Tolkien).  If you’d like to try it in translation, we came upon this free one which, if it can’t give you the rather chewy original–it really was meant to be read aloud—here’s Chaucer himself reading from his poem, “Troilus and Cressida” in an early 15th century illustration—


the translator, A.S. Kline, has made a very good attempt to suggest the rhymes and sound patterns of the original (being, we believe, influenced by Tennyson and Idylls of the King when it comes to “feel”).   Here’s a LINK so that you can see for yourself:  https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/English/GawainAndTheGreenKnight.php

Heading on (and we promise not to litter our text with head puns after this, although we may have to remind ourselves to keep a cool head, as we go), there is Washington Irving (1783-1839)


and his collection of short stories, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820).


(This is the first British edition of 1820.)

Included in this volume are “Rip Van Winkle”, about a man who goes hunting, encounters spirits, drinks spirits, and wakes up an old man, 20 years later,


(An Arthur Rackham illustration, from his 1905 edition.  Here’s a LINK, if you’d like to see more:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/60976/60976-h/60976-h.htm )

and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.  We first encountered this story in childhood in a Disney short film,


which, since we were small and easily spooked (no, no pun here!), scared us silly.

In Irving’s story, an itinerant schoolmaster appears in a tiny village along the Hudson River at the beginning of the 19th century.  He is very successful at slipping into local society, but goes one step too far when he appears to be on his way to gaining the hand of the daughter of a rich landowner.   Her previous suitor, deciding to scare him off, tells the story of the “Headless Horseman” to the gullible schoolmaster, then impersonates the Horseman


and the schoolmaster—heads for the hills.  (To make up for that last pun—sorry!—here’s a LINK so that you can read both of these stories and more for yourself—it’s the 1820 London edition, in two volumes:

https://archive.org/details/sketchbookgeoff15irvigoog/page/n6/mode/2up   vol.1

https://archive.org/details/sketchbookgeoff00murrgoog/page/n7/mode/2up  vol.2  )


The Green Knight in the poem is able to deal with decapitation because he is (medieval spoiler alert!) under a protective spell.   The Headless Horseman in “Sleepy Hollow” isn’t (early American Romantic spoiler alert!) actually headless, but a young man playing a vicious prank to rid himself of a rival.  Our third fictional example, however, is based not upon the world of Faery or practical joking, but upon a horrible piece of real history:  the violence of the French Revolution.


Our author here is the Baroness Emma Orczy (1865-1947)


and our main character is an heroic one, who works to save people from decapitation, Sir Percy Blakeney, aka, “The Scarlet Pimpernel”.  Originally a wildly popular play, the story was then published in novel form in 1905.


(This is the 1908 edition.)

Sir Percy is an English nobleman who fights against the French revolutionary government and its agents, slipping in and out of Paris to rescue noblefolk from public execution.  He sometimes does this in disguise, but, in fact, to do what he does, he turns his whole life into a charade, in public being what is recognized as the first “incredibly competent hero who disguises himself as weak/cowardly/inept”, a figure we all would recognize as everyone from Zorro to Batman.  (If you would like to sample his adventures, here’s a LINK to that first book:  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/60/60-h/60-h.htm  We will put a small warning label on this, though:  the Baroness was a real noblewoman of the 19th century.  Her view of ordinary people and of the real reasons for the Revolution will not be those of us who live in the 21st century.  If you can suspend modern beliefs, she can tell a good adventure story.)

Films about the Pimpernel–which is a small wayside flower—


begin all the way back to 1917, but our favorite is this, with the English actor, Anthony Andrews, as Sir Percy, from 1982.


(For those of us who are Gandalf fans, we can also see a young Ian McKellen as the villainous Chauvelin.)


But how shall we head away from this subject?  Perhaps with another quotation from the Red Queen?  In Chapter IX, “The Mock Turtle’s Story”, Alice and the Duchess, while at a very strange croquet match,


meet Her Violent Majesty, who says to the out-of-favor Duchess:

“Now, I will give you fair warning…either you or your head must be off, and that in about half no time!  Take your choice!”

And so we will.

Stay well and know that there is



Breathing In

“And, having plucked a branch of luxuriant laurel,

They gave me a staff, a wonderful thing,

And they breathed into me a divine voice,

So that I might tell of the things of the present,

And those before.” (Hesiod, Theogony, 30-32—our translation)

In In the opening lines of the ancient Greek poem, Theogony (“The Genesis of the Gods”), “Hesiod” (we put this name in quotation marks because it’s impossible to know if he actually existed), tells us how the Muses, magical figures who patronized all of the arts,


visited him when he was minding his flock on Mt Helicon and inspired him to become a maker of songs.


The word which we just used, “inspire”, is a Latin one and, in Latin, it literally means “to breathe into”, which perfectly matches the Greek verb used in the poem: enepneusan.

This posting is rather special, as it’s number 312, the final posting for the sixth year of doubtfulsea.com, and so we thought that, to commemorate the years we’ve written and uploaded all of these illustrated mini-essays, we would talk a little about what has inspired us to love adventure literature, to write about it, and even to write it, ourselves. Oh—and welcome, dear readers, as always.

We begin with another quotation, this by H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925),


a later Victorian writer famous for such works as King Solomon’s Mines (1885),


among others:

“The really needful things are adventure—how impossible it matters not at all, provided that it is made to appear possible—and imagination, together with a clever use of coincidence and an ordered development of plot, which should, if possible, have a happy ending, since few people like to be saddened by what they read.” (The Days of My Life, Vol.2, page 90)

We’ve come to adventure from several directions.

When we were very small, we began to see a popular comic strip in the Sunday newspapers (it’s still there). It was set in an imaginary very late Roman/early medieval world and featured King Arthur and his knights and, in particular, Prince Valiant, a kind of displaced Viking.


The vivid drawings, the knights, and Val’s struggles, first to become a knight and then across the western world (combat with Huns and Goths and he even comes to North America, long before the Vikings) not only kept us reading, week after week, but also gave us a taste—no, a thirst—for history as adventure, even if that history was mixed with magic and dragons, among other marvels.

Real history appeared a little later, in the form of a series called Landmark, with books which ranged from Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo


to the American Civil War battle of Gettysburg


to a book we read over and over, on the French and Indian War.


Then we discovered science fiction. It was a book in our school library.


The author’s name was Andre Norton, which we soon learned was a pen name for Alice Mary Norton (1912-2005),


who wrote a large number of fantasy/science fiction novels and whose gifts included a great ability to depict aliens and alien worlds. We especially liked her series about a group of agents who first travel back in time to locate a crashed alien space ship, are then accidentally carried off in one on an intergalactic journey, then the knowledge they bring back leads to further adventures.


Along with history in various forms and science fiction, there were also films. Walt Disney made versions of stories we came to read after seeing them on the tv screen, things like Treasure Island


and Kidnapped


and, of course, Zorro.


As well, there were old adventure films, like The Charge of the Light Brigade


and The Adventures of Robin Hood.


Our formal education gave us Homer


and Vergil


and Beowulf,


and then, one day, in a bookstore, we found these—


We read them and reread them, found


and then this,


along with the letters and all of those volumes edited by Christopher Tolkien.


Science fiction has never left us, but took on a new form with these—


As we’ve been writing, we’ve felt all sorts of other sources tug at our sleeve: what about Westerns, for instance? There is everything from the director, John Ford’s, Stage Coach


and Fort Apache,


to the most recent The Lone Ranger.


And there are all of those samurai movies by Kurosawa, like Sanjuro,




and our favorite of all, The Seven Samurai.


But wait—look what we’ve left out—


and there are a number in the series called “Young Indiana Jones” which we’ve watched and rewatched.


As we began writing this post, we admit that we surprised ourselves: there certainly were a lot of influences—and we’re sure that those aren’t all. We hope that we’ve always been careful not to overload our postings, however, so we’ll stop here, but we couldn’t resist (if you follow us regularly, you know that we rarely can!) attaching a list of works which we’ve enjoyed—usually more than once. When the author has written many works, we’ve limited ourselves to our favorite or a selection. There are, for instance, more Lloyd Alexander books, like The Rope Trick and The Iron Ring, and The Wizard in the Tree, as well as two more Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes novels—and 56 short stories. This list includes contemporary works, a few foreign favorites, and some traditional material, as well, all of it recommended.


Lloyd Alexander, The Chronicles of Prydain

Anonymous, Tain Bo Cuailgne (in Thomas Kinsella’s translation)

Gillian Bradshaw, The Sand-Reckoner, Island of Ghosts, Cleopatra’s Heir

Mikhail Bulgakov, The White Guard, The Master and Margarita, Heart of a Dog

Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands

Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, The Hound of the Baskervilles

Alexander Dumas, The Three Musketeers

Esther Forbes, Johnny Tremain

CS Forester, the Hornblower novels

George Macdonald Fraser, the “Flashman” novels

ETA Hoffmann, short stories like “The King’s Betrothed” and “Mademoiselle de Scudery”

Rudyard Kipling, Kim

CS Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia

Elias Lonnrot (editor), The Kalevala

George RR Martin, A Game of Thrones

Terry Pratchett, Going Postal

Philip Pullman, the His Dark Materials series

Walter Scott, Waverley

Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island, Kidnapped

SM Stirling, the series of novels devoted to “The Change”

Bram Stoker, Dracula

Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth and many others

WW Tarn, The Treasure of the Isle of Mist

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Harry Turtledove, The Guns of the South, the various novels set in “Videssos”

Valmiki, Ramayana


We thank you, as ever, for reading—some of you since our beginning, six years ago—and we close by saying

Stay well






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:

  1. 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.


  1. 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.

Rogers' Rangers: Ambushed!

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.

Rogers’ Rangers

(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,

Stay well,




How Do We Get There?

Welcome, as always, dear readers.

One reason why we love teaching—and which we’ve really missed since everything went on-line here in mid-March—is the daily contact with students and the really stimulating questions which they so often ask.  There’s been some discussion by correspondence, but it’s just not the same as when things pop up in class and we suddenly have to consider something from a new (and sometimes surprising) angle.

Take, for example, the idea of maps in Tolkien—not the ones you’ll find in your copy of The Lord of the Rings, or in Karen Wynn Fonstad’s The Atlas of Middle-earth


or Barbara Strachey’s equally excellent Journeys of Frodo


but the ones employed in the text by the characters—or not…

For JRRT, maps were always a subject of great interest and might even form the basis of the narrative itself, as he wrote to Rayner Unwin in 1953:

“…in such a story one cannot make a map for the narrative, but must first make a map and make the narrative agree.” (Letters, 168)

“Even at a little cost,” he wrote to his publishers about those in The Lord of the Rings, “there should be picturesque maps, providing more than a mere index to what is said in the text.  I could do maps suitable to the text.  It is the attempt to cut them down and omitting all their colour (verbal and otherwise) to reduce them to black and white bareness, on a scale so small that hardly any names can appear, that has stumped me.” (Letters, 171)

At an earlier time in his own life, proper maps had even been a literal matter of life and death.  In the Great War,


his and his fellow soldiers depended upon good maps, showing not only where they were, but also where the enemy was, and the Army spent a great deal of time collecting information from many sources, including deserters and prisoners,


the bodies of enemy casualties,


trench raids, to acquire prisoners and possibly documents,


and aerial photography,


to create maps as detailed as this—


A bad map could cause no end of confusion or even get you killed, as ANZAC (Australian/New Zealand) soldiers found to their grief at Gallipoli in 1915, when incomplete intelligence led to a fatal ignorance both of local geography and the location of their Ottoman opponents.



So, one day, before the world went crazy, our class was in the middle of discussing the early chapters of The Hobbit, and one bright student (in a class full of bright students, in fact), asked, “But how would the dwarves know how to get to the Lonely Mountain?”

Another student said, “Well, there’s that map.”


But then a third student, who’d been flipping through the text, raised his hand and said, “But it wasn’t very complete” and read:

“ ‘This was made by Thror, your grandfather, Thorin,’ he said in answer to the dwarves’ excited questions.  ‘It is a plan of the Mountain.’

‘I don’t see that this will help us much,’ said Thorin disappointedly after a glance.  ‘I remember the Mountain well enough and the lands about it.  And I know where Mirkwood is, and the Withered Heath where the great dragons breed.’ “ (The Hobbit, Chapter One, “An Unexpected Party”)

“So,” said the first student, “if that map wasn’t useful, what were they going to use?”

In answer, we said that, because no other map was mentioned, we had always assumed that they used their memories, as Thorin had said that he remembered the Lonely Mountain and Mirkwood, to which the first student replied, “But when was the last time the dwarves saw it?  And how far away was it?”

And then class ended and we went off to do a little research.

Using the always-helpful The Atlas of Middle-earth , we found that the trip was about 950 miles, one way, and some browsing in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings provided the necessary time scheme:   Smaug arrived at the Mountain in TA2770 and The Hobbit begins in TA2941, so Smaug had occupied the Lonely Mountain for 171 years before the opening of the story.

Of the dwarves, Thorin, born in TA2746, was the oldest (the Jackson films have, for unexplained reasons, made him seem much younger), and therefore was about 24 when Smaug appeared.  The next oldest dwarf, Balin, was born in TA2763 (but whom the films make to appear much older than Thorin), and would therefore have been about 7.  None of the rest of the company had been born when the Lonely Mountain fell to the dragon.  We doubted that Balin, at 7, would have had much memory of the events of the few surviving dwarves’ early exile, which meant that they must be relying upon whatever Thorin could bring back from his own brutal experience at 24, 171 years before.  Dwarves clearly have very long memories, we said to ourselves.

And the more we thought about this question of how do people find their way around Middle-earth, the more the only explanation in general appeared to be that:  memory, not maps. Just the other day, for example, we were working on a posting on a subject from The Lord of the Rings, and it occurred to us that there were no maps employed at all by any of the characters in any of those three volumes—and the story entails tremendous amounts of travel, from Hobbiton to Bree to Rivendell to Moria to Lorien to Fangorn to Rohan to Minas Tirith, the Paths of the Dead, the Dead Marshes, the Morannon, Cirith Ungol, and Orodruin (which, when we read it back, sounds like a railroad conductor announcing stops on the local line—or end of the line, when it comes to Mordor!)


The Hobbit itself tells us that other maps existed, the author saying of Bilbo that:

“He loved maps, and in his hall there hung a large one of the Country Round with all his favourite walks marked on it in red ink.”  (The Hobbit, Chapter One, “An Unexpected Party”)

This was a local map, however, and in that way rather like Thror’s map.  It might have guided you to the edge of the Shire, but what then?  Certainly, Bilbo didn’t know:

“One morning they forded a river at a wide shallow place full of the noise of stones and foam.  The far bank was steep and slippery.  When they got to the top of it, leading their ponies, they saw that the great mountains had marched down very near to them.  Already they seemed only a day’s easy journey from the feet of the nearest.  Dark and drear it looked, though there were only patches of sunlight on its brown sides, and behind its shoulders the tips of snow-peaks gleamed.

‘Is that The Mountain?’ asked Bilbo in a solemn voice…

‘Of course not!’ said Balin.  ‘That is only the beginning of the Misty Mountains, and we have got to get through, or over, or under those somehow…” (The Hobbit, Chapter Three, “A Short Rest”)

We might explain this narrowness of mapping by that fact that there doesn’t appear to be a need for maps (which would all have been made and copied by hand, after all).  In general, people simply don’t travel much in the Middle-earth of the Third Age, places like Bree—or Rivendell or Lorien, for that matter–being like islands in a nearly-empty landscape:

“In those days no other Men had settled dwellings so far west, or within a hundred leagues of the Shire.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 9, “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony”)


“But the Northern Lands had long been desolate, and the North Road was now seldom used:  it was grass-grown and the Bree-folk called it the Greenway.”

Exceptions are rare.  There is Gandalf, of course,


who has crisscrossed the landscape for centuries, having arrived in Middle-earth nearly 2000 years earlier, and whose endless traveling has earned him the Elvish name Mithrandir, “the grey wanderer”.

As well:

“…in the wild lands beyond Bree there were mysterious wanderers.  The Bree-folk called them Rangers, and knew nothing of their origin…They roamed at will southwards and eastwards even as far as the Misty Mountains…”


And then there is a third experienced traveler, Gollum,


whose seemingly extensive knowledge of the darker east of Middle-earth both aids and nearly dooms Frodo and Sam.

We are so used to having the world at our (electronic) fingertips


and so lucky to have the painstaking efforts of the Tolkiens, Fonstad, Strachey—and of our friend, Erik, of course, to whose future efforts we look with great anticipation—that it’s good to be reminded that, for all they help us readers, the principal geographical help for the characters is the experience of their own feet and the clearness of their memories—and for which reminding, we, personally, thank our students.

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Stay well






If you’d like to learn a bit more about time and distance in Tolkien, here’s an interesting LINK:


A Turning Point

Welcome, dear readers, as always.

If someone says the word “trophy”, does an image like this spring into your mind?


or this?


or perhaps this?


If so, we wouldn’t be surprised:  these and many similar objects are what we now call by that name.

Once, though, the word had a very different meaning, a much darker meaning than a sporting victory—although it did involve victory.

Battles fought in historical times in ancient Greece were not of the sort you might read about in the Iliad, where, often, warriors square off and challenge each other, sometimes even indulging in menacing speeches before attacking each other.


Instead, in the period between, say, 700 and 400BC, armored men, called hoplites


after their broad shields,


fought in a dense group, called a phalanx.


Each side formed up into one of these and the two sides then collided and the battle consisted of stabbing, pushing, and shoving until one side managed to break open the other side’s formation.


This was the turning point of the struggle.  Once the phalanx was broken, that side’s choices were limited:  usually, to fight to the death, or to drop that shield—three feet (about 1 metre) wide, it was thought an incumbrance if a getaway was planned—and run.  The Greek poet, Archilochus, who lived in the middle of the 7th century BC and whose unit appears to have suffered defeat at the hands of Saians, a people of Thrace, in northeastern Greece, seems almost proud to have done this:

“On the one hand, some man of the Saians is happy with a shield,

A decent one, which, unwillingly, I left by a bush,

On the other hand, I saved myself.  What do I care about that shield?

Let it go!  In the future, I’ll own one no worse.”

(our translation)

When the enemy was dead or fled, the victors would mark the spot on the battlefield where that turning point had taken place.  The ancient Greek verb “to put to flight” was trepo (TREP-oh) and, on that spot, they would raise a kind of victory monument, which they called a tropaion (troh-PYE-on).  The earliest depiction we can locate so far is from the middle of the 4th century BC, from one of the carved panels of a hero-shrine (heroon—heh-ROE-on) in Lycia, in Asia Minor.


This is from a 19th-century engraving or early photograph, so it’s a bit fuzzy, but, basically, we hope that you can see that it’s a post on which the victors have hung armor, presumably taken from the bodies of the defeated enemy.

Either the Romans borrowed the custom, like so much else, from the Greeks, or came up with their own version, based upon the same idea:  commemorating a victory on the battlefield.


We have many more Roman images:  there appear to be lots of coins, for instance, which feature what the Romans called a tropaeum (troh-PYE-um)—which, clearly adapted from the Greek word, might suggest that the custom, as well as the word, came from the Greeks.  Here’s a coin with a tropaeum which dates from the brief dictatorship of Julius Caesar (44BC) and which shows what appears to be Gallic armor and several captives, reminding his fellow Romans that Caesar conquered the Celtic peoples of Gaul.


As you can see from this coin and from the previous modern illustration, the basis was rather like a kind of crude scarecrow:  an upright with a crosspiece, which would allow for the armor to be displayed in a more lifelike fashion.  Trajan’s (53-117AD) column, in Rome, provides us with an even more detailed illustration—


This column, which is extremely rich in imagery of a Roman army on campaign, c.100 AD, commemorates the emperor’s victories against the Dacians at the beginning of the second century.  For all that it is a victory monument, and although it depicts a tropaeum among its many images, it is not on a battlefield, but in downtown Rome, and so it is not, itself, a tropaeum.  Trajan did leave us one such, however, on or near the site of the battle of Adamclisi, fought in the winter of 101-102AD, in modern Romania.  It had fallen into ruin over the centuries, but was reconstructed in 1977.


Originally, there had only been an altar on the site, but, a few years after the final campaign, this splendid monument was erected.  This reconstruction is only one of several suggested, but we should point out that, somewhere, originally was placed a statue which would have reminded any Roman of the origins of this more sophisticated construction.  It is preserved in the site museum—


As you can see, it has that familiar shape:  upright with what appears to be a crosspiece, all covered in armor.

If we say that such things were placed on battlefields by both Greeks and Romans, what was the purpose or what were the purposes?  The Adamclisi tropaeum has a fragmentary inscription, which mostly gives us Trajan’s many names and titles, but also mentions the defeat of the Dacians and their allies, the Sarmatians.  It is dedicated to Mars, the Roman war god, which is not surprising,


It’s not just to Mars, however, but to Mars Ultor, “Mars the Avenger” (no—not one of those Avengers)


and this makes us wonder what message was being sent by such a monument at such a place.  Obviously, at one level, it says:  we won—and you ran away—or you should have–but you left valuable things behind.  After all, armor and weapons were all hand-made, and, even if Archilochus pretended to be indifferent to the loss of his shield, someone had to make another, cutting the boards, gluing them together, covering the outside with a shell of bronze—


certainly medieval people knew the value of what was left on a battlefield, as the lowest band illustration from the Bayeux Tapestry here clearly displays.


At another level, it looks like it might be a thank offering to a god—in the case of the Adamclisi tropaeum, Mars.

At a third level, two things interest us:  first, it might be that the basic shape—that of a stretched-out man—was simply an easy way to hang up armor and helmets.  Then again, we were reminded of the Assyrians and the display they left outside captured towns, as a warning about the consequences of resisting them


Vlad, the 15th-century border lord who provided Bram Stoker with inspiration for his Dracula, was nicknamed tepes  (TEH-pets) “impaler”, for doing the same thing to prisoners.


Secondly, remembering the Ultor in the Adamclisi inscription, we wonder if such things, besides commemoration, possible mockery, and a thank-you to the divine, might have one more use:  as a warning, especially if, before that basic shape, an actual enemy warrior—dead—or perhaps alive? was set up, as if to say:  invade our land and this is what will happen to you and to all of your fellow soldiers, too.  Mars (in the form of our spears) will avenge your attack.

With that in mind, we remembered a scene in The Lord of the Rings:

“At last as the afternoon was waning they came to the eaves of the forest, and in an open glade among the first trees they found the place of the great burning:  the ashes were still hot and smoking.  Beside it was a great pile of helms and mail, cloven shields, and broken swords, bows and darts and other gear of war.  Upon a stake in the middle was set a great goblin head; upon its shattered helm the white badge could still be seen.”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 2, “The Riders of Rohan”)


And what was the message of that head, we wonder?

As ever, thanks for reading.  Stay well and know that there’s