Wars of the Angels

As always, welcome, dear readers.

With a background in the Greco-Roman world, I’m never surprised that the divine seems always a part of human endeavors in ancient literature and even history.  Gods are regularly assumed to be behind the actions of humans, either to benefit  human worshippers (and sometimes their own semi-divine children) or to act on their own behalf (often to oppose the actions of their divine opponents).   Gods are always being worshipped, prayed to, sacrificed to, or blamed.

It has always puzzled me, then, that the movie Troy (2004),

with the exception of Achilles’ mom, Thetis,

left out the entire pantheon of gods,

who actually make up half the cast of major characters in the original story.

(This is a part of what would have been a pair of writing tablets

recovered from Egypt, c.400-500AD.  It contains lines 468-473 of Book 1 of the Iliad.)

In fact, the Trojan War itself was caused by gods when:

1. Zeus forced Thetis to marry a mortal, Peleus.

(in one version of the story, Thetis is a shape-shifter and Peleus has to catch her)

2. At the wedding of the two, the goddess Eris, who, because, she is the divine form of strife, wasn’t invited, rolls in a golden ball/apple which is labeled “for the most beautiful”.

(there is a wedding procession on the top band of the vase here)

(Eris is dropping the ball/apple from above, rather than bowling it.)

3. Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite all claim it.

4. When Zeus wisely refuses to choose, they go to a (presumably) unbiased mortal, Paris, a shepherd

5. who is offered,  by Aphrodite, Helen,“the most beautiful woman in the world”, but who just happens to be married to Menelaus, the younger brother of the main king of the Greeks, Agamemnon.  Helen, depending upon the version you prefer, is stolen/elopes with Paris, who turns out not to be a shepherd, but a Trojan prince.

(clearly a stolen Helen version here)

6. Menelaus calls on his big brother for help, and suddenly there are those 1000 ships.

(by Jon Hodgson—have a look at his webpage at Deviant Art:  https://www.deviantart.com/jonhodgson/gallery   He seems able to paint/draw/design anything in fantasy—see his website at:  https://jonhodgsondesign.com/about-jon-hodgson/  for more.)

7. The war which follows is on two levels, the humans—Trojans versus Greeks—and the gods, roughly divided between Hera, Athena, and Poseidon on the Greek side and Apollo, Aphrodite (surprise!), and Ares on the Trojan, with Zeus in the middle.

The Iliad is full of the gods’ interference, one of the saddest moments being when Zeus is forced to watch one of his favorite mortal children, Sarpedon, be killed and is warned by Hera not to intervene lest all of the other gods begin favoring their children (which they sometimes do anyway).

(Here Sarpedon’s body is being carried off by the twins, Sleep and Death, while Hermes directs.)

The Iliad is not the only ancient story with such divine/human interaction.  The Indian epic, the Ramayana, has, as its main character the god Vishnu,

who has himself born as a human prince, Rama,

in order to combat Ravana, the 10-headed king

of the Rakshasas, or demons,

as the demons have made themselves invulnerable to the gods, but have foolishly allowed a loophole in their agreement with them, so that humans and–certain animals–have not been included. 

(If you’d like an easy introduction, my favorite is the very sophisticated children’s version by Bulbul Sharma.)

And then there is the actual war among divine figures which we see in the Judeo-Christian Bible, with the Archangel Michael and his angels on one side and Satan (sometimes in the form of a dragon) and his angels on the other.  This is depicted in a series of fragmentary scenes scattered between Old and New Testaments, but John Milton (1608-1674)

produced a wonderfully dramatic and coherent version in Books V and VI  of his long poem, Paradise Lost (1667/1674).

(Here’s a LINK to the 1667 edition:  https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1794/767/lost.pdf?sequence=1  If you read this blog regularly, you know that I always prefer original texts, especially for Renaissance works, as, using them always makes me feel a little closer to the author and his/her original intent.)

What isn’t surprising, then, is to see an author who had originally intended to become a Classicist and who was a practicing Christian, when creating his own world and its mythology, depict the same sort of struggles as in Homer and the Bible, if not in the Ramayana.  Consider the situation:  on the one side, there is a fallen angel, a Maia, Sauron,

(JRRT’s unfinished drawing)

and, potentially on the other, five more angels, the Maiar Istari, on the other.

(These are Hero Forge miniatures—I wonder what they would look like painted?)

The five have been sent to counterbalance the one, but, whereas the one builds up fortresses and vast armies of men and others,

two of the five disappear before the story begins, one has a connection with the animal world, one leads and counsels but rarely commands,

(an Alan Lee)

and the fifth is corrupted and attempts to imitate the fallen one, with his own fortress

(the Hildebrandts at work)

and his own armies.

(a Ted Nasmith)

The one—and his imitator—are both eventually defeated and, when they are, much of it is through the agency of the counselor, who then appears to return to the Middle-earth equivalent of heaven.

(another beautiful Ted Nasmith)

To someone who is also steeped in the Classics, what could be more satisfying?

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Stay well,

Be as pius as Aeneas,

And believe—that there is always



In Circles

Welcome, dear readers, as always.  I’ve been teaching the Odyssey again and, as I am hardly the first to say (about the ten millionth, at least, I’d guess, from its initial general circulation, probably in the 4th to 3rd centuries BC):  “Every time I read it, I find something new.”

In this case, it was in a passing remark made by Odysseus to his Phaeacian hosts while telling them the long story of “How I Still Haven’t Gotten Home”.  We are in Book 12 and Odysseus and his men are on the ill-fated island of Thrinakia (“Tridentia” in English) where Helios keeps his pet cattle.

and flocks and from which Odysseus has been warned away by Circe. 

Odysseus and his men have dragged their ship ashore to a cave “there where the pretty dancing places of the nymphs and [their] seats were”.  (Odyssey, Book 12, line 318, my translation)

In the early Greco-Roman world, it was believed that there were spirits in everything and “nymph” had a wide meaning, from those who lived in springs, Naiads,

(This is from the story of the Golden Fleece, where Herakles’ companion, Hylas, is abducted by several naiads as he tries to get water from a spring.)

to those who lived in trees,  Dryads and Hamadryads,

(This is a very spooky and convincing work by SamanthaCatherine at Deviant Art.  Here’s her website:  https://www.deviantart.com/samanthacatherine )

to those who live in the sea, Oceanids and Nereids.

In the line quoted, there is simply the word “of nymphs”, but, as there is a cave, and a similar cave on Ithaka, in Book 13, has Naiads, (Odyssey,  Book 13, lines 347-348) I’m going to guess that these are Naiads, too. 

The word for “dancing places” is, transliterated, khoroi, and it can also mean  “round dances”, suggesting that the nymphs were doing what in the South Slavic world is called the kolo

or in modern Greece, a syrtaki,

although both of these may also be danced in a line.  And we can see the suggestion of this round pattern in ancient illustrations, like the so-called “Borghese dancers”, from the 2nd-3rd century AD—

(A later plaster copy)

But the idea of supernatural dances to me suggests another tradition, that of “fairy rings”.

Who these fairies were isn’t an answerable question.  Perhaps the descendants in belief from the ancient idea of spirits in everything?   Certainly they dance in circular patterns like the nymphs on Odysseus’ Ithaka,

but, in this later tradition, unthinking people can be lured into such rings and be made to join in the dancing till they not only lose track of time, but lose time itself—a common motif about mortals who enter the Otherworld.  In more modern times, W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) included the idea in his long poem, The Wanderings of Ossian (1889), and C.S. Lewis  (1898-1963) has visitors to Narnia find that there is a great difference between time back home in England and that in Narnia.

As one illustration, here’s a late appearance of the idea—in comic form–in Basil Hood and Arthur Sullivan’s (completed by Edward German after Sullivan’s death) operetta, The Emerald Isle (1901).

The story, set in 1801 in Ireland, is a complicated one with Irish rebels (or patriots, depending) and the British Lord Lieutenant and his redcoats.  Into the middle of it comes Professor Bunn,

who appears to be pulled back and forth between the two sides.  At one point, however, he is on the Irish side and, disguised as an ancient man,

he tries to scare off the redcoats by telling them what happened to him when he was lured into such a ring.

“BUNN.          Many years ago I strode

               Down the Carrig-Cleena road;

               Night coming on, tired out, I lay

               Where the legend says the fairies play!

               But the tales I had heard of fairy tricks

                    Were never believed by me;

               Then I was a youth of twenty-six,

                    But now I’m eighty-three!

ALL.                Now he’s eighty-three!

BUNN.          Round and round the fairy ring,

               There I heard the fairies sing;

               This is the fairy song I heard,

               Do I remember it?  — every word.

                    Da Luan, da mort, da Luan, da mort

                    Angus da Dardine!

               Many, many people may

               Disbelieve what I do say —

               Once I was young and foolish, too,

               And an ignoramus, just like you;

               But whenever you hear of fairy tricks,

                    Don’t laugh at ’em any more.

               Then I was a youth of twenty-six,

                    But now I’m ninety-four!

ALL.                Now he’s ninety four!

BUNN.          Dancing round the fairy ring

               All that time I’ve had to sing;

               Though you may not believe a word,

               This is exactly what occurred,

                    Da Luan, da mort, da Luan, da mort

                    Angus da Dardine!”

(The words to the fairies’ song are almost as mysterious in English as they’re meant to sound in Irish:  “Monday, Tuesday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday!”  These words appear to be taken from a well-known Irish folktale, “The Legend of Knockgrafton”, where they are spelled in this fashion, including some spelling mistakes.  In Modern Irish, this would be “De Luain, De Mairt, De Luain, De Mairt, agus De Ceaodaoin”.   Thomas Crofton Croker (1798-1854) first published it in Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, 1825.  This went through many editions, but you can read it yourself in the second edition of 1838 here:   https://archive.org/details/fairylegendstrad00crokiala/page/n7/mode/2up   If you’d like to hear this sung—and I recommend it for its jaunty little tune–go to:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-t6Q9aAmhcA   and run it over to about 6:28.  At the moment, there’s no professional recording, but this was a production by The Prince Consort in 1982 which is on Pearl CD Gems 0189, along with a previous late Sullivan work with Basil Hood, The Rose of Persia. )

Odysseus seems to assume that nymphs and their dances are a natural part of the landscape and I imagine that so did the early audiences for the epic and from the songs and stories from which it came.  Yeats claimed to believe in these Otherworld folk and included the Croker story in his Folk and Fairy Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888).  (You can read the book here:   https://sacred-texts.com/neu/yeats/fip/index.htm  You can also read it at the Internet Archive, but I wanted to give you this LINK because it puts you into the Sacred Texts site, which is full of good things for people interested in traditional stories.)

Unfortunately, modern science not only doesn’t believe in fairies, but explains fairy rings


 “a naturally occurring ring of fungi that can produce rings or arcs of dead grass, lush green grass that grows quicker than the rest of the lawn, or mushrooms.”  (This is from the Garden Seeker website, under the title, “Fairy Rings in Your Lawn?  How to Remove Them and Prevent Them Returning”.)


Thanks for reading, as always.

Stay well,

Avoid seductive circles, particularly under a full moon,

And know that, as ever, there’s



In a Name

Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

Juliet, standing on her balcony, is talking to herself, unaware that Romeo is standing right below:

“Iul: Ah Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

Denie thy Father, and refuse thy name,

Or if thou wilt not be but sworne my loue,

And il’e no longer be a Capulet.

Rom: Shall I heare more, or shall I speake to this?

Iul: Tis but thy name that is mine enemie.

Whats Mountague? It is nor hand nor foote,

Nor arme, nor face, nor any other part.

Whats in a name? That which we call a Rose,

By any other name would smell as sweet: “   (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet,  827-838—no act or scene numbers and this is modern lineation of the 1597 (Quarto 1) version—in the Folger Edition, this is Act 2, Scene 2, lines 36-47—for the 1597 version, see:   https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/doc/Rom_Q1/index.html  ; for the Folger Edition:  https://shakespeare.folger.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Rom.pdf  )

Thinking of a few items from certain other genres of western literature, however, I’m not sure that I agree with Juliet.

We can start early, with heroic poetry and the Odyssey.  When Odysseus, in need of help finally to reach home, drags himself ashore on the island of Scheria, home of the Phaeacians, he first encounters a princess, Nausicaa.

The Phaeacians are, appropriately for islanders, a sea-going people, and the princess’ name may be translated as either “Excelling-in-ships” or, more alarmingly perhaps, “Ship-burner”.   (There is some scholarly argument about this—see this interesting discussion:  https://sententiaeantiquae.com/2020/12/08/was-nausikaa-a-ship-burner-speaking-names-and-etymology-2/  )  Other Phaeacians have similar maritime names, like the herald, Pontonoos—“Sea-minded”—and the founder of the Phaeacian nation himself, Nausithoos—“Swift-ship”. 

Many years later, we’ll see Tolkien echo this with the names of some of his horse-people, the Rohirrim,

(by JlazarusEB—more at his website:  https://www.deviantart.com/jlazaruseb  He’s very cleverly taken a hint from JRRT’s use of Old English as the basis of Rohirric to employ the 7th-century AD Sutton Hoo helmet as a model. ) with

with such names as Eomer—“Famous-for-[his]-horses”—

(by that very interesting Russian illustrator, Denis Gordeev)

and his sister, Eowyn—“Horse-friend”.

(another work by Gordeev)

From the heroic, we can easily move to morality, or perhaps I should say mortality, with the late 15th century play, “The Summoning of Everyman”,

(from the earliest printing)

where the very name of the main character points a finger towards the entire audience.  The plot of this drama has Everyman going on a kind of life journey towards death and judgment in which he tries to recruit others to join him.  These others are very easy to recognize even before they speak by names like “Good Deeds”, “Wisdom”, and “Strength”. (If you’re not familiar with this work, here’s the LINK to an early 20th-century translation into modern English:  https://archive.org/details/summoningofevery00leip/page/n5/mode/2up )

We might almost call this “labeling” rather than “naming” and such labeling is a common feature of the English morality/mortality tradition, from the 14th-century on, perhaps the most famous later version being John Bunyan’s (1628-1688)

The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).

Like Everyman, this is a journey,

in which the main character, on his way to what he hopes is salvation, encounters all sorts of figures with give-away names, like “Mr. Worldly Wiseman”

and “Faithful”.

(who is burned at the stake, thus providing later illustrators with a dramatic scene)

We can see Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

continue this practice in the 19th century in another genre, novels.  Among descriptive names in his various books, we find  “Wackford Squeers”, a brutal headmaster,

“Mr. Gradgrind”, an educational reformer

and “Mr. M’Choakumchild” , another teacher (giving you a good idea of what Dickens thought of the mid-Victorian educational system),

(I don’t have an actual illustration, but this image of an 1850 schoolroom is certainly suggestive.)

not to mention villains with names like “Sir Mulberry Hawk”

(a social predator—can you tell which he is?)

 and “Uriah Heep”,

giving the author, in this case, the chance to have another character call him a “heap of infamy” (while whacking him with a ruler).

From the grimly comic novel, we can move to the openly comic film, and, hearing the name “J. Cheever Loophole”

will tell you all you need to know about that lawyer’s methods and abilities.

What’s in a name?  Perhaps plenty—and all of those roses don’t smell equally sweet as in the case of “Rufus T. Firefly”

and “Otis P. Driftwood”.

Thanks for reading,

Stay well,

Remember:  “No names, no pack drill”, (an old British army expression)

And know that, as ever, there’s



Mr. Tolkien or Professor Toad?

Welcome, dear readers, as always.

I suppose that we might blame Henry Ford (1863-1947) for this.

In 1908, he began to produce a standard car (only one color:  black) at what he believed was an affordable price for the growing number of middle class Americans, the Model T.

As he put it in a later memoir:

“I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”  (Henry Ford, assisted by Samuel Crowther, My Life and Work, 1922, p.73—if you’d like see more of Mr. Ford’s life and thoughts as he saw them, here’s a LINK to the work:  https://ia800709.us.archive.org/3/items/mylifeandwork00crowgoog/mylifeandwork00crowgoog.pdf )

Earlier automobiles, especially the earliest, were very expensive toys, available only to the very wealthy.

As Ford says, his goal was to change that.  And he was fantastically successful.   By the time the Model T ceased production, in 1927, over 15,000,000 had been built.

Others, of course, seeing such success, wanted to imitate Ford.  In Britain, Sir Herbert Austin (1866-1941)

produced the Austin 7 in 1923

and William Morris (1877-1963 later, 1st Viscount Nuffield),

had been producing less expensive models as early as 1915, often under the name “Morris Cowley” (after the location of the factory).

This was inexpensive enough that, in 1932, a rather poverty-stricken Oxford professor, with a wife and four children

invested in one.

What happened next seems rather surprising, as Humphrey Carpenter tells it:

“After learning to drive he took the entire family by car to visit his brother Hilary at his Evesham fruit farm.  At various times during the journey ‘Jo’ [the car’s name, after the first two letters on the license plate] sustained two punctures and knocked down part of a dry-stone wall  near Chipping Norton with the result that Edith refused to travel in the car again until some months later…” (Carpenter, Tolkien, 177)

And it only gets worse:

“…Tolkien’s driving was daring rather than skilful.  When accelerating headlong across a busy main road in Oxford in order to get into a side-street, he would ignore all other  vehicles  and cry ‘Charge ‘em and they scatter!’—and scatter they did.” (Carpenter, Tolkien, 177)

A favorite Tolkien family book was Kenneth Grahame’s (1859-1932)  

1908 The Wind in the Willows.

A major—and extremely dubious—character in that book is J. Thaddeus Toad.

Toad is a wealthy man, er, toad, who is running through his fortune with expensive hobbies, the major one being the new world, in 1908, of motor cars,

which, like a certain professor, he drives with daring, if not with skill, as his three friends, Badger, Ratty, and Mole discuss:

“Another smash-up only last week, and a bad one. You see, he

will insist on driving himself, and he’s hopelessly incapable. If

he’d only employ a decent, steady, well-trained animal, pay

him good wages, and leave everything to him, he’d get on all

right. But no; he’s convinced he’s a heaven-born driver, and

nobody can teach him anything; and all the rest follows.”

“How many has he had?” inquired the Badger gloomily.

“Smashes, or machines?” asked the Rat. “Oh, well, after all,

it’s the same thing—with Toad. This is the seventh. As for the

others—you know that coach-house of his? Well, it’s piled up

—literally piled up to the roof—with fragments of motor-cars,

none of them bigger than your hat! That accounts for the

other six—so far as they can be accounted for.”

“He’s been in hospital three times,” put in the Mole; “and as

for the fines he’s had to pay, it’s simply awful to think of.”

“Yes, and that’s part of the trouble,” continued the Rat.

“Toad’s rich, we all know; but he’s not a millionaire. And he’s a

hopelessly bad driver, and quite regardless of law and order.

Killed or ruined—it’s got to be one of the two things, sooner or

later. (p.65)

At first, they try to reason with Toad,

but eventually are forced to lock him in his room,

from  which Toad happily escapes and nearly ruins himself and his fortune before his final rescue by his loyal friends, which includes a prison break

and a battle with weasels.

So, reading about this other side of JRRT, I wonder whether, as we imagine him in his study, Gandalf-like, deep in his literary and scholarly roles,

there always lay, just below the surface,  another Tolkien—or do I mean J. Thaddeus Toad?–

ready to push the electric starter on the Morris

 and roar off through the countryside, the terror of pedestrians and on-coming traffic, crying, “Charge ‘em and they scatter!”,

a Theoden in a boxy motor car.

(A stirring image by Tulikoura—a talented artist at:  https://www.deviantart.com/tulikoura )

Thanks for reading,

Stay well,

Sound horn at crossings,

And know that there’s always




Although Grahame’s book was published in 1908 and I always prefer first or early editions, my favorite edition is that of 1931, illustrated by E.H. Shepard.  Here’s the LINK so that you can enjoy Shepard’s illustrations along with Grahame’s gentle comedy:  https://archive.org/details/the-wind-in-the-willows-grahame-kenneth-1859-1932-sh  .

Roman in Middle-earth

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

In late 1951, I imagine that Tolkien

must have been a man with very ambivalent feelings.  He was parting from Allen & Unwin, who had been his publisher since The Hobbit, in 1937, over the matter of The Silmarillion, which Tolkien wanted to be published with The Lord of the Rings.  When Allen & Unwin rejected that combination, Tolkien tried his luck with a new publisher, Collins.  To provide an idea of what he had created, and why the two should be published together, he sent, at the publisher’s suggestion, a letter with a very extensive description of his work to them and, in it, was this:

“In the south Gondor rises to a peak of power, almost reflecting Numenor, and then fades slowly to decayed Middle Age, a kind of proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium.” (to Milton Waldman, “probably written late in 1951”, Letters, 157)

Byzantium had originally been a Greek colony on the European side of the Bosphorus.

In 324AD, the emperor Constantine I ( c.272-337AD)

renamed it “New Rome” and made it the eastern capital of the Roman Empire, which, with his work and that of his successors, turned it into a large and elegant city

at the heart of an extensive empire, the Byzantine Empire.

(You’ll note, by the way, for all that Constantine may have renamed Byzantium  New Rome, everybody actually called it “the city of Constantine”—Constantinople.)

Like all empires, it gradually faded, being reduced, just before the capital fell in 1453, to the up-and-coming Ottoman Empire, to Constantinople and a few weak enclaves.

(And you can see, in this illustration, one reason for the capture of the capital:  the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet II, was a very forward-thinking man and employed an Hungarian gun-founder to cast a series of early cannon to shake the sturdy, but ancient, walls.)

It’s easy, then, to understand what JRRT means about Gondor, but I think we might add that there’s something  not only Byzantine about Gondor, but Roman, as well.  Below, I make a few suggestions, but,  the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that this might be the topic for a much longer piece, or even a short series.

Rome had been all around Tolkien during his growing up.  Britain itself, after all, had been in Roman hands from more or less the end of the first century AD, after the emperor Claudius’ ( 10BC-54AD),    

 invasion in 43AD,

being divided into two provinces at the end of the 3rd century AD and, by the later 4th century, into five.

By the time of Tolkien’s birth, in 1892, most of what might survive after the Roman government’s abandonment of the provinces in the early 5th century lay below the surface, but certain things popped through—bits of Roman road

and the stumps of Hadrian’s wall,

for example.  And here we might see the ancestor of the Greenway, as well, perhaps, as the Rammas Echor, the great wall which surrounded the fields of the Pelennor  (and was in need of repair, at least along its northern end).

Although various Victorians had poked at the remains of Roman occupation, this was before the creation of modern archaeological techniques, so they generally dug, extracted artifacts, then reburied sites, only a few, it seems, being very careful to chart where and what they had excavated.

Still, the Classical Studies, for which he was originally intended, had given the young Tolkien Julius Caesar (100-54BC)

and his account of his brief invasion of southern Britain in 55-54BC,

Suetonius’ (c.69-122AD) biography of Claudius with its account of the second invasion

(with an elephant, no less),

and Tacitus’ (c.56-120AD) continuation of the invasion, including the revolt, in 60-61AD, of a portion of the population under the guidance of the queen of the Iceni tribe, Boudicca.

(This is Thomas Thornycroft’s statuary group, which, although he began it in 1856, wasn’t completed and erected till 1902—just across the road from Parliament.  Every time Tolkien would have crossed Westminster Bridge, walking towards Parliament, he would have seen it to his right.)

History aside, there was also the mythological aspect.  Rome was said to have been founded by descendants of refugees from fallen Troy, led by the Trojan prince, Aeneas,

as Tolkien would have read in Vergil’s (70-21BC)

unfinished Latin epic, the Aeneid.

It’s no stretch, I think, to see that this would have been in the back of his mind when he wrote, in that letter to Milton Waldman:

“Elendil…flees before the overwhelming storm of the wrath of the West, and is borne high upon the towering waves that bring ruin to the west of the Middle-earth.  He and his folk are cast away as exiles on the shores.  There they establish the Numenorean kingdoms of Arnor in the north…and Gondor…further south.”  (Letters 156-157)

As JRRT moved from Classics to the study of Old and Middle English literature, the Roman world would still never be far away.  The late 12th-early 13th-century poem by the priest, Layamon, standardly called Layamon’s Brut, is a history of Britain, but it begins with the story of Aeneas’ great-grandson, who, with his followers, sails west to an island of giants, whom they defeat before colonizing the island under a new name, “Britain”, from the name of their leader (in a rather corrupt form).  And, finally, even older, there is the Old English poem from the Exeter Book (c.950AD)

called “The Ruin”, which many scholars—and, though no Old English scholar, I would agree—believe describes the remains of the Roman town of Bath (Aquae Sulis,”[the] Water of Sulis” who was a local goddess) in the 8th or 9th century, AD.

(It’s important to note that, although Roman Bath was gone, the hot springs which gave it its name continued to be popular and, as you can see from this picture, were the subject of much newer construction in later times.  The Roman portion of the baths stops at the bases of the columns.)

Here’s a translation, along with the original, of the full—but fragmentary–text:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ruin .  It’s a beautiful work, but, for today’s posting, I would only point out that, although the poem probably is about a nearly-lost Roman town,  that Roman town is described as “the work of giants”, which, in Old English, is enta geweorc  and, in this phrase, we see that some of the oldest beings on Middle-earth, though described in another language, also have a strong Roman connection—although, at their most dramatic, they’re destroyers, not builders…

(One more splendid Ted Nasmith.)

As ever, thanks for reading.

Stay well,

Remember that Rome isn’t dead, but immortal,

And know that there’s always



On Account of the Monkeys

As always, dear readers, welcome.

When it comes to Indiana Jones movies, I’m always torn between #1

and #3.

Raiders of the Lost Ark has a freshness to it that always keeps it new for me, no matter how many times I’ve seen it, while The Last Crusade has the byplay between Indiana and his father, which adds a whole additional level, both of comedy and emotion, to the story.

One of Henry Jones Senior’s remarks to his son, in fact, has inspired this posting.  Indiana has made the mistake of retaining his father’s “Grail Diary”,

which then falls into enemy hands.

Disgusted with “Junior” as he calls him, Henry Senior says, “I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers!”

It’s a funny line—after all, just look at Groucho, Chico, and Harpo.

Do these look like people you would trust with the sensitive matter of the Holy Grail?

(It’s “CHICK-oh”, by the way, as in “one who goes after girls”, rather than the Spanish word meaning “little” or “boy” or “dude” or even “boyfriend”.)

After I wrote the first draft of this posting, it occurred to me that perhaps not everyone among my readers would know who these people were.

The Marx Brothers were, as you’d expect, a group of brothers named Marx

although Karl was not among them.

Originally four in number, they had been stage entertainers and not very successful ones until they almost fell into comedy and then they quickly became increasingly successful, first on stage, and then in film, under the names “Groucho”, “Chico”, “Harpo”, and “Zeppo”.  (Zeppo—he’s the one in the upper left hand corner–hoped for a singing career and gradually faded from the picture, literally.)

On stage, they were known for their zany unpredictability:  what you might see one night might be completely different the next.  In film, their quick movement from slapstick to verbal humor and back still suggested that sense that it was all improvised and just this side of cheerful chaos.  Here’s  Groucho singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” from their 1934 film, At the Circus, as an example:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iO9xXk5qUtg

And so I’m not so sure that Henry Jones Senior isn’t saying more than he means .

Consider dictators of the period in which the film takes place:

One feature which gave these men power was their basic humorlessness.   Everything they did publicly was meant to be taken dead seriously.  Even a shared smile was like an historic occasion.

If we can detach them from their behavior and its consequences for the world, however, everything from Mussolini’s shaved head to Hitler’s baggy trousers (actually jodhpurs—riding britches–though I can’t imagine him on a horse, even though he owned a fancy racehorse named Nordlicht–

was this is actually a horse mannequin?)

could easily fall into comedy, as it did in Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 The Great Dictator,

where we see Hitler and Mussolini as “Adenoid Hynkel” and “Benzino Napaloni”.

If the Marx Brothers had one major target, it was pomposity in people and events.  In A Night at the Opera  (1935) alone,

they take on rich society ladies

and toadying people from the arts,

knock out an up-and-coming Italian tenor,

mock the complicated language of legal contracts,

stow away on an ocean liner,

pretend to be famous Italian aviators,

destroy a public ceremony honoring those aviators,

[Here’s the scene, if you don’t know it, or just want to see it again:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38N5OcZx3ko ]

and, ultimately, ruin a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore,

having previously sent a symphony orchestra out to sea, still playing Wagner, in Day at the Circus (1934).

Even the possibly “posh” pronunciation of a common word could be a target when, in Day at the Circus, Groucho, having just pronounced the word “aunt” to rhyme with “taunt”, turns to the screen audience and comments:

“I usually say aunt [rhyming with American “can’t”], but I’m showing off on account of the monkeys.”

(This is a circus, after all.)

Imagine that scene, then, in The Last Crusade, when Indiana, clutching the recovered “Grail Diary”, comes face to face with Hitler.

The original scene has its own ironic comedy, as Hitler thinks that Indiana is a fan and wants an autograph, but what would have been the case if Groucho, backed by Chico and Harpo, had suddenly been confronted with the dictator?

As always, thanks for reading.

Stay well,

Remember that the password is “Swordfish”  (see:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yT0-HGqy_8c  ),

And know that, as always, there’s




When your mind BOGGLES! at something, what’s really going on?

Imagine that you’re on a horse, trotting quietly along a country lane when, suddenly, the horse rears as if it had seen something—but what?

It once happened to me—in a stable—and suddenly I was on the ground and the horse was standing some distance away, perfectly quiet.  Clearly, he (a dark bay, named “Seaworthy”),

(not the actual horse, but just to give you a general idea)

 had thought that he’d  seen a bogle, that is, a kind of ghost or spirit. 

And, since that meant DANGER!  to him, he took appropriate action, being definitely a “flight” (vs a “fight”) animal, for all that he weighed about half-a-ton (450kg).

And this is, supposedly, what happens when you come up against something previously unseen and therefore unexpected:   your brain’s reaction, just like Seaworthy’s, is to…boggle, that is, to react as if you’d seen a bogle.

Welcome, as always, dear readers.

If you’re a regular reader—and I hope that you are—you will remember that I’ve been talking about inspirations for posts.  Last week’s was a picture of Gandalf, smoking, and that of the week before was a popular song from 1909, “I’ve got Rings on My Fingers”. 

This week’s began with another popular song, but from the year before.  The song is called “The Yama Yama Man” and appeared in a New York show with the odd title of Three Twins.

Here’s the first verse and the chorus:

“Ev’ry little tot at night,
Is afraid of the dark you know.
Some big Yama man they see,
When off to bed they go.


Yama, Yama, the Yama man,

Terrible eyes and a face of tan.

If you don’t watch out he’ll get you without a doubt,

If he can.

Maybe he’s hiding behind the chair,

Ready to spring out at you unaware.

Run to your mama,

For here comes the Yama Yama man.”

It quickly became a big hit–in 1908 terms, that meant that people:

1. who lived near New York went to see it performed, sometimes more than once

2. they and others bought the sheet music

3. and/or the record

The original singer was Bessie McCoy (1888-1931)

who appeared in a black Pierrot costume with oversized gloves, which must have made her hands look more like claws,

and sang and danced the song in a wild, acrobatic fashion against a background of people in triangular outfits.

(There doesn’t appear to be a surviving recording of McCoy singing it, but Ada Jones, 1873-1922,

had a hit with the song in 1909 and here’s a LINK:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1YVCIkIc6E      If you’d like a more modern version, here’s Joan Morris  (1974): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSOjADO1MoI     The song is at 16:04   And, because this is actually a rag—that is, a very early form of jazz—I’ll include a piano version which really brings out the raggyness of the song:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTN3TJDz_AY    As for those triangular costumes, I’ve yet to find an production image, but, in 1909, Grace Duffie Boylan published Yama Yama Land, which was inspired by the song.  Here’s the cover and a color plate, suggesting something of the 3-cornered nature of those Yama Yamians—)

Who is this creature?   Where does he come from?  We’re not told, but we know one thing:  he’s out there, like “Pennywise”, the “It”  in the Stephen King novel,

and he’s out to get you—at least if you’re a nervous child.  Beyond that fact, the menace in this song is that, like being boggled, it’s what you don’t see which frightens you—“maybe he’s hiding behind the chair”– and here I’ve been thinking about something which Grishnakh says to Ugluk:

“ ‘Nazgul, Nazgul,’ said Grishnakh, shivering and licking his lips, as if the word had a foul taste that he savoured painfully.  ‘You speak of what is deep beyond the reach of your muddy dreams, Ugluk,’ he said.”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)

If we consider the Nazgul for a moment, what is it that Grishnakh is afraid of? 

The only person in the story who actually sees them as themselves is Frodo, and only when wearing the Ring:

“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.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 11, “A Knife in the Dark”)

They are, in fact, otherwise oddly disembodied:  even when fully clothed (and, being disembodied, how do they do this?), they are invisible, as in the case of their chief:

“…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 Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”)

Even in what I’d guess is death—or at least dissolution—they remain unseen:

“The crown rolled away with a clang.  Eowyn fell forward upon her fallen foe.  But lo! the mantle and hauberk were empty.  Shapeless they lay now on the ground, torn and tumbled…”

Which reminds me, of course, of—

So, I’d suggest, it’s not what he sees, so much as what he doesn’t, which makes Grishnakh anxious.  And Gorbag expresses a similar feeling:

“Grr!  Those Nazgul give me the creeps.  And they skin the body off you as soon as look at you, and leave you all cold in the dark on the other side.”  (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 10, “The Choices of Master Samwise”)

Having seen the Nazgul in the flesh (so to speak), Frodo asks Gandalf a very interesting question:

“…But why could we all see their horses?”

To which Gandalf replies:

“Because they are real horses; just as the black robes are real robes that they wear to give shape to their nothingness when they have dealings with the living.”

To which Frodo has a further question—and Gandalf an answer.

“ ‘Then why do these black horses endure such riders?  All other animals are terrified when they draw near, even the elf-horse of Glorfindel.  The dogs howl  and the geese scream at them.’

‘Because these horses are born and bred to the service of the Dark Lord in Mordor.’ “ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 1, “Many Meetings”)

Not being bred to such service, could Seaworthy have spotted a Nazgul and boggled?

(Alan Lee does it again)

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Stay well,

Keep to the western side of the Loudwater,

And know that, as always, there’s




Dictionaries of the Scottish Language has an extra form of “bogle” which I really like:  “tattie-bogle”—“ragged ghost”—that is, “scare crow”.

Up in Smoke

As ever, welcome, dear readers.

In my last, I said that I was always interested in the sources of inspiration for the almost 400 essays posted so far on this site.  In the case of this posting, it’s easy to trace:  it’s this image, sent to me a few weeks ago by my dear friend, Erik, and it got me to thinking…

(A wonderful painting by Matthew Stewart.  Here’s his website so that you can see more:   https://www.matthew-stewart.com/ )

We know that Tolkien was a life-long pipe smoker—

and so it would be natural that at least some of his characters might have a similar habit.  After all, the first time we see Bilbo—and Gandalf—Bilbo

“…was standing in his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his woolly toes…” (The Hobbit, Chapter One, “An Unexpected Party”)

Such a long pipe—well, not that long—is probably what is called in our era of Middle-earth a “churchwarden”.  This has a very long stem which, smokers say, helps to cool the smoke.

We’re not told what Bilbo is smoking, but, from the section of the Prologue of The Lord of the Rings entitled “Concerning Pipe-weed”, we can suppose that:

1. it’s a member of the tobacco family (Nicotiana)

2. it comes from the Longbottom area of the Shire

(That’s in the lower right hand area, in a curve of the Brandywine, just below the Old Forest)

3. it may be one of the “best home-grown…varieties now known as Longbottom Leaf, Old Toby, and Southern Star”

4. the custom of smoking it is, in hobbit terms, extremely old and a hobbit-invention

(See The Lord of the Rings, Prologue 2, Concerning Pipe-weed for more details.)

Tobold Hornblower, who was believed to have introduced the plant to the Shire, never betrayed its origins, but, in our era of Middle-earth, tobacco was a New World plant

long employed there by various Native Americans for religious, ceremonial, medicinal, and leisure occasions.  It was introduced to Europe in the early 16th century and was available in Tolkien’s England by the 1570s.  Seemingly the first image of an Englishman with pipe in hand is this, from Anthony Chute’s 1595 Tabaco.

This is a pamphlet in praise of smoking and it was something taken up enthusiastically in England by the late 16th century—but condemned by King James I himself in 1604 with A Counterblaste to Tobacco.

(You can read Chute’s defense here:     https://ia800203.us.archive.org/7/items/tabacco00chutgoog/tabacco00chutgoog.pdf       And James’ attack here:  https://ia800201.us.archive.org/14/items/acounterblastet00englgoog/acounterblastet00englgoog.pdf )

Tobacco smoking—or “drinking”, which was a term used at first–

was, initially, an expensive hobby, so that pipes like Bilbo’s would have been unlikely.  Instead, they would have been much more moderate in size, like this one,

of which this is a useful  scale reproduction.

Tobacco was so popular that it soon became both a big business in the New World

and much cheaper abroad, so that all classes but the lowest could indulge and smoking became simply a common pastime—or something more, in the case of Sherlock Holmes, who used it to stimulate his thinking.

Here we see the incomparable Jeremy Brett, smoking a churchwarden, perhaps in The Red-Headed League, in which he refers to the case as a “three pipe problem”.  (And, if you don’t know the story, here it is as it first appeared in The Strand Magazine in 1891:  https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Strand_Magazine/Volume_2/The_Red-Headed_League )

I suspect that this may be a source for Gandalf’s use of it, in fact, and I was reminded of that possibility by Erik, who included this quotation with the image:

“Actually Gandalf was awake, though lying still and silent.  He was deep in thought, trying to recall every memory of his former journey in the Mines…’I know what is the matter with me,’ he muttered, as he sat down by the door.  ‘I need smoke!  I have not tasted it since the meeting before the snowstorm.’

The last thing that Pippin saw, as sleep took him, was a dark glimpse of the old wizard huddled on the floor, shielding a glowing chip in his gnarled hands between his knees.  The flicker for a moment showed his sharp nose, and the puff of smoke.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 4, “A Journey in the Dark”)

Merry Brandybuck, who is quoted in”Concerning Pipe-weed”, suggested that it was the hobbits of Bree who actually invented the habit and:

“…certainly it was from Bree that the art of smoking the genuine weed spread in recent centuries among Dwarves and such other folk, Rangers, Wizards, or wanderers…”

And one of those wizards, besides Gandalf, who enjoys “the genuine weed” lives far to the south, along the ancient Greenway,

as we learn from two other smokers,

 contentedly enjoying a shipment which must have stood in one of his storerooms before the original owner made the mistake of annoying the Ents.

(a favorite Ted Nasmith)

As Merry tells it:

“It was Pippin who found two small barrels, washed up out of some cellar or store-house, I suppose.  When we opened them, we found they were filled with this:  as fine a pipe-weed as you could wish for, and quite upspoilt…it is Longbottom Leaf!  There were the Hornblower brandmarks on the barrels, as plain as plain.  How it came here, I can’t imagine.  For Saruman’s private use, I fancy.  I never knew that it went so far abroad…”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 9, “Flotsam and Jetsam”)

We know, from things which Saruman lets drop when he is attempting to persuade Gandalf to join him, that he has more dealings with the Shire than might, at least at first, be expected, so it may not be surprising that, among those dealings, there is the acquisition of what Merry calls “this dainty”.  I only wonder, if it helps Gandalf to think, what does it do for Saruman?

Thanks, as always for reading.

Stay well,

Keep your matches in a dry place,

And know that, as ever, there’s



Ring Composition

Welcome, dear readers, as always.

Looking back, I’m always interested in where the ideas for postings come from.  Sometimes, it’s from something I’ve read, a line in a Tolkien letter, something CS Lewis wrote in an essay.  Sometimes, it’s from something I’ve seen, a fantasy or science fiction film, or an illustration which really caught my attention.  Sometimes it just seems to come out of the air.

This posting began with a surprise remark, a song , and a nursery rhyme.

The song is one that I’ve had in my head for years.  It’s from 1909 and first appeared in an early musical, The Midnight Sons.  Here’s a sheet music cover for it—

The song is called “I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers” and was popularized by a period entertainer named, appropriately enough, Blanche Ring (1871-1961).

In the song, an Irishman, Jim O’Shea, is shipwrecked on an “Indian isle” and proves so popular with the locals that he’s soon “the nabob of them all”.  He explains this to his sweetheart from home, Rose McGee, in a letter and the chorus sums it up:

“Sure, I’ve got rings on my fingers,

Bells on my toes.

Elephants to ride upon,

My little Irish rose.

Come to your nabob

And on next Patrick’s Day

Be Mistress Mumbo Jumbo Jijiboo J. O’Shea.”

Warning:  it’s a very catchy chorus and it’s no wonder that the song was originally a hit.

So that you can have it stuck in your head, here’s a modern performance (1974), by the American mezzo-soprano, Joan Morris (accompanied by the distinguished composer—and her husband—William Bolcolm)–

And here’s Blanche Ring’s original from 1909–

That “Rings on my fingers/bells on my toes” is obviously a link to something much earlier, a version of which you may know.  It’s from a nursery rhyme, the lyrics of which have a certain number of variants.  I learned it as:

“Ride a cock horse

To Banbury Cross

To see a fine lady

Upon a white horse.

Rings on her fingers,

Bells on her toes,

She shall have music

Wherever she goes.”

To see various variants, follow this LINK:   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ride_a_cock_horse_to_Banbury_Cross

There has been scholarly discussion about the origins of this rhyme, as with so many nursery rhymes:  why Banbury (a town about 30 miles north of Oxford)?  It has a lovely statue of the lady, by the way, made in 2005—

Just who is the lady?  And where/why is she riding?

Bells—on the horse, rather than the lady–made me think first of the description of the horse of the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in whose mane

195þer mony bellez ful bry3t of brende golde rungen

“where many very bright bells of refined gold rang”

(I took my text from the Representative Poetry Online—RPO—site at:  https://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/content/sir-gawain-and-green-knight  which has the Middle English text along with interspersed modern English translations.  For the Tolkien/Gordon Middle English text, see:   http://www.maldura.unipd.it/dllags/brunetti/ME/index_gaw.php?poe=gaw&lingua=eng )

And then of the elf lady who carries off Thomas Rhymer in Child Ballad #37:

At ilka tett of her horse’s mane

                    Hung fifty silver bells and nine.

“At every tuft of her horse’s mane

Hung fifty-nine silver bells.”

(For a number of texts with variant lines of this, see:   https://sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/child/ch037.htm    To hear one variant—a favorite of mine—sung by Ewan MacColl, see:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYyJ8pRdfYs  )

And those bells, in turn, led to the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, where Strider and the rest of the company freeze in place when they hear what they believe is an unwelcome sound:  “the noise of hoofs behind them” , but:

“Then faintly, as if it was blown away from them by the breeze, they seemed to catch a dim ringing, as of small bells tinkling.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 12, “Flight to the Ford”)

Instead of the Nazgul they were fearing, however, it was the Elf-lord Glorfindel, sent to find them. 

But it’s those rings, of course, which really caught my attention—after all, there were once:

“Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)

The use of those bells, from Sir Gawaine to “Thomas Rhymer” to Glorfindel, just like the slave’s theft of a golden cup from the unnamed dragon’s hoard in Beowulf,

which reappears in Bilbo’s theft of a similar cup from Smaug,

reminds us that JRRT’s mind was full of echoes from earlier literature, whether he actively borrowed, which must be the case with the cup, or simply had something float up.  He could be quite defensive about this, if not downright prickly, as in the case of Moria and the fairy tale “Soria Moria Castle” (see the draft of a letter to a “Mr. Rang”, Letters, 384). 

In the same draft, however, he has the very opposite reaction and this, to me, rather surprising statement formed part of the inspiration for this posting: 

nazg:  the word for ‘ring’ in the Black Speech…Though actual congruences (of form + sense) occur in unrelated real languages, and it is impossible in constructing imaginary languages from a limited number of component sounds to avoid such resemblances (if one tries to—I do not), it remains remarkable that nasc is the word for ring in Gaelic (Irish:  in Scottish usually written nasg)…I have no liking at all for Gaelic from Old Irish downwards…[but] I have at various times studied it…It is thus probable that nazg is actually derived from it…”

When I think of rings in Old Irish (“Irish” is now used for the Celtic language of Ireland and “Gaelic” is used for its Scots descendant) stories, that which stands out for me is the ordnasc, that is, “thumb ring”, in the Tain Bo Fraich (The Cattle Raid of Froech)

It is given to the hero, Froech, by Findabair, the daughter of the Queen of the province of Connacht, Medb, and her husband, Ailill.  Although initially Medb (the real power in Connacht, Ailill being a bit like Menelaus in the Helen story) looks upon him with favor, she then changes her mind.  Not wanting him to marry Findabair, at the first opportunity, Ailill steals the ring and tosses it into a river where a salmon swallows it.  The salmon is eventually retrieved, opened, and the ring reappears.  The story is actually much more complicated, full of vivid description which, with rhythmic and sound patterns in Irish, must have been a treat for the imagination and the ear.  English translations will at least give you the plot, however, and here’s a 1905 one, by A.H. Leahy, with which to start:  https://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/fraech.html

(This is from the second volume of Leahy’s Heroic Romances of Ireland and, if you’d like to read more, here’s a LINK to the book:   https://archive.org/details/heroicromancesof02leah/page/n5/mode/2up )

A ring which disappears into water and a fish is involved?  This is what is called, by folklorists, a “Tale Type” and this particular type, in the standard work by Aarne-Thompson-Uther, is catalogued as ATU736A, under the title “Polycrates’ Ring”.  The pattern of the story is apparently common, but Polycrates himself was a real person, the ruler of the island of Samos in the 6th century BC.  Much of what we know of him comes from the 5th-century historian, Herodotus.

Herodotus can sometimes employ what appear to be folk tales as if they were reality in his history and his story about the ring certainly sounds like it.

In brief, it goes like this:

1. Polycrates has a close friend, the Egyptian pharaoh, Ahmose II (reigned 570-526BC—called “Amasis” in the Greek text).

2. Ahmose is worried about Polycrates’ seeming constant good luck and advises him to choose the most valuable thing he owns and get rid of it for good (because the gods might become jealous—best never to be too fortunate!).

3. Polycrates decides that it’s a ring and he has himself rowed out into the sea, then throws it overboard, breathing a sigh of relief.

4. Then, one day, a fisherman brings him the biggest fish he’s ever caught.

5. I think that you can guess the rest:  yes, the fish is cut open and, well, eventually Polycrates does not end well, being crucified by the Persians, who have already seized the mainland.

(If you’d like to read this story for yourself, here’s a LINK to Herodotus’ Histories, Book Three, Sections 40 and following:  https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hh/hh3040.htm )

The title of this posting comes from a literary concept in which material somehow circles back on itself, making a ring, like the ouroboros, the snake biting its own tail (or, in this case, tale) in alchemy, among other sources.

So how will we circle back? 

I said that Tolkien’s surprise remark, that Black Speech nazg was derived from Irish nasc , was part of the initial inspiration for this posting, and that nasc made me think of an Old Irish story in which such a nasc—and a fish—played an important role.  There is another story with a ring and a fish, however:

“…but Deagol sat in the boat and fished.  Suddenly a great fish took his hook, and before he knew where he was, he was dragged out and down into the water, to the bottom.  Then he let go of his line, for he thought he saw something shining in the river-bed; and holding his breath he grabbed at it.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Stay well,

Beware of strange Rings:  they may be fishy,

And know that, as always,




Marching Into Mordor

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

If you read/watch fantasy, you won’t have escaped some version of this meme—

(It’s interesting, by the way, to read something about the speech behind this, which is from the film, but doesn’t exist in the text of The Fellowship of the Ring:   https://www.newsweek.com/lord-rings-meme-boromir-one-does-not-simply-walk-mordor-fellowship-sean-bean-1507844#:~:text=%22One%20does%20not%20simply%20walk,great%20eye%20is%20ever%20watchful. )

In this posting, I intend to walk briefly into the place, not to drop off a Ring,

but to try to understand something beyond its geography.  Is there something more which adds menace to the place beyond that geography?

It’s not as if the geography isn’t menacing, of course. 

(This is from Karen Wynn Fonstad’s wonderful  The Atlas of Middle-earth 1981/1991

From the Ered Lithui across the plateau of Gorgoroth to the Ephel Duath, this is depicted as a kind of volcanic landscape,

with, in fact, an active volcano, Orodruin, which seems to be smoking most of the time, like a Middle-earth Etna,

set just above the center of that plateau,

(This is a Tolkien sketch.)

its northern entrance blocked by elaborate gates, the Morannon,

its western entrance by Minas Morgul and the Tower of Cirith Ungol,

and, rising just below the volcano, the capital of the place, the Barad-dur, the Dark Tower.

Although I called the Barad-dur a “capital”, it might be better termed a command center, as the northern part of Mordor isn’t really a land with farms and villages, as we see in Gondor and even in Rohan, but a vast military installation, agriculture being located to the south—“great slave-worked farms away south in this wide realm, beyond the fumes of the Mountain by the dark sad waters of Lake Nurnen”.   Instead, as Tolkien describes it through the eyes of Frodo and Sam:

“As far as their eyes could reach, along the skirts of the Morgai and away southward, there were camps, some of tents,

some ordered like small towns.  One of the largest of these was right below them.  Barely a mile out into the plain it clustered like some huge nest of insects, with straight dreary streets of huts and long low drab buildings.”  (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 2, “The Land of Shadow”)

(These illustrations are of army camps from the Great War and here I agree with John Garth’s suggestion, in his latest book, The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien,

that JRRT was probably thinking of the camps he himself had stayed in during his military service in France in 1916.)

Such camps—along with the “mines and forges” mentioned by the narrator as located in that region—would have produced an endless smog of cooking and industrial fires

to which would have been added volcanic leaks from the ground itself:  “There smokes trailed on the ground and lurked in hollows, and fumes leaked from fissures in the earth.”

(I suspect that, for JRRT, this image would have been a combination of his understanding of the instability of land around an active volcano

and his memories of Great War poison gasses, some of which were heavier than air and would, once loosed towards the enemy, linger in trenches and shell holes, still dangerous to the unwary.)

If the actual air is poisonous, so is the emotional atmosphere of Mordor.  Although the plain itself may be barren, except for the area just below the Ephel Duath, called the Morgai, the area around the camp below Frodo and Sam is teaming with life:

“About it the ground was busy with folk going to and fro; a wide road ran from it south-east to join the Morgul-way, and along it many lines of small black shapes were hurrying.”

Those lines are hurrying because they are columns of troops and it seems that they are being spurred on not by a passionate loyalty to Sauron, but by other means, as Sam and Frodo encounter it:

“The leading orcs came loping along, panting, holding their heads down.  They were a gang of the smaller breeds being driven unwilling to their Dark Lord’s wars; all they cared for was to get the march over and escape the whip.  Beside them, running up and down the line, went two of the large fierce uruks, cracking lashes and shouting.” 

This appears to be the norm in Mordor, as we see again and again reflected in the behavior of its many servants.  Emotionally, Mordor is immersed in an atmosphere of fear, in which everyone is constantly watching everyone else for reportable misbehavior and possible dire punishment, as Grishnakh threatens Ugluk in their attempt to escape the Rohirrim and bring Merry and Pippin to Isengard:

“ You have spoken more than enough, Ugluk…I wonder how they would like it in Lugburz.  They might think that Ugluk’s shoulders need relieving of a swollen head.  They might ask where his strange ideas came from.  Did they come from Saruman, perhaps?” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)

This is struggle between two leaders, but this attitude extends down to the common foot soldiers.  Frodo and Sam ducked behind a bush and overheard this conversation between two of them, a soldier and a tracker:

“  ‘You come back,’ shouted the soldier, ‘or I’ll report you!’

‘Who to?  Not to your precious Shagrat.  He won’t be captain any more.’

‘I’ll give your name and number to the Nazgul,’ said the soldier, lowering his voice to a hiss.  ‘One of them’s in charge at the Tower now.’ “  (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 2, “The Land of Shadow”)

(“Name and number” sound like another of JRRT’s memories of the Great War.  All British soldiers were issue with regimental service numbers when they joined the army and Tolkien would have worn around his neck something like this:  two identity discs with his name, that number, the title of his unit, and his religion.  On a grim note, if he had been killed and his body recovered—many bodies on both sides never were—the red tag would have been collected by his recoverers, the green tag would have been left for the burial party.)

Above the soldiery—sometimes literally—were those Nazgul and, by Grishnakh’s reaction, in talking with Ugluk, they contributed one more element to this generally fear-filled world:

“ ‘Nazgul, Nazgul,’ said Grishnakh, shivering and licking his lips, as if the word had a foul taste that he savoured painfully.  ‘You speak of what is deep beyond the reach of your muddy dreams, Ugluk…’ “(The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)

I’ve never really believed in the original film text of the remark the meme captures:

“One does not simply walk into Mordor. Its black gates are guarded by more than just orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. The great eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire, ash, and dust. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly.”

This, to me, doesn’t sound in the least like Boromir, the Captain of Gondor, who dies valiantly cutting down squads of orcs,

but more like a script-writer’s attempt to add tension to the long scene in the film derived from “The Council of Elrond”, foreshadowing the actual place which Frodo and Sam eventually confront and putting it into the mouth of someone we later know does not believe in Frodo’s mission.  The description certainly covers the physical situation, and even mentions Sauron obliquely, but upon this unstable landscape of “fire, ash, and dust” lies an entire world of unstable servants, fearful creatures who constantl y mutter and squabble amongst themselves and must be held to their tasks by whips and the threat of being reported to something which gives even orc chieftains the shivers.  I don’t know if any script writer could capture this in a single speech, but, when we walk into Mordor, we should be well aware that there is more unsleeping evil there than Boromir can tell.

As ever, thanks for reading,

Stay well,

Keep one eye out for Nazgul in flight,

And know that, as always, there’s