Ringing False (1)

Welcome, as always, dear readers.

Faramir (always one of my favorite characters)

is adamant:

“I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway.  Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory…”  (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 5, “The Window on the West”)

He means The Ring, of course,

(a John Howe—I like the fact that it’s a painting, not a photographic image)

and, as Frodo is standing in front of him, the ring in a thin chain around his neck, when Faramir says this, it doesn’t seem like posturing:  unlike others in The Lord of the Rings, he truly doesn’t want it.

There are others like him, who fear what it might do to them, one who doesn’t seem even to understand what it is, as well as those who lust after it, for various reasons and this brings me to today’s subject.

I am a respecter of fan fiction.  I know that there are those who condemn it, since some of it is not at the same literary level as the original work upon which the fan fiction writers base their creations.  In my view, that may be true, but it misses several important points:

1. young writers have imitated the work of their elders for centuries and, as a good imitation means close attention to the admired original, such imitation can act as a kind of writing school, in which a beginner who pays that attention can learn a good deal about the craft of writing.

2. fan fiction shows not only a deep affection for an author’s work, but a hunger for more of the same and here we see the Inklings, and Tolkien and CS Lewis, in particular,

famously saying that, having read all they could find which they liked, resolved to create more.  Imagine, then, that the fan fiction writer of today, having learned from what she/he loves to read, will now make plans to add to the pool of what she/he enjoys.  And, if the person has talent, like Tolkien and Lewis, as well as passion, who knows but she/he will be inspired to create works which the rest of us will enjoy as much as the original inspirations?

That being said, I’m not about to produce for you a short story entitled “Falling from the Bridge”, in which we see Boromir and Faramir’s failed defense of Osgiliath.  Instead, just as in fan fiction in which characters and situations are borrowed from earlier authors, inspired by Faramir’s rejection of the Ring, I want to borrow some of JRRT’s characters and employ them in that kind of speculative historical fiction called “What If?” 

A very famous story in this genre is Ray Bradbury’s (1920-2012)

 “A Sound of Thunder”, originally published in Collier’s magazine for 28 June, 1952,

and republished in Bradbury’s 1953 collection The Golden Apples of the Sun.

If you aren’t familiar with this story, here’s a LINK so that you can read it (and it’s well worth reading, which I think is true for just about anything Bradbury wrote): https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=bW91bnRhaW52aWxsZWFjYWRlbXkub3JnfGNyYWlnLXMtY2xhc3Nlc3xneDoxMjI3ODZmYmIzNjY2OTk1

For our purposes, the most important element is that a wealthy man buys the chance, via a time-traveling firm, to hunt a dinosaur. He has been warned that the firm is anxious about potential changes to the future, should something unpredictable happen in the past, and so the dinosaur with which he’s provided has been seen to have been killed in the near future:  therefore, it’s believed safe to shoot him just before his actual death.  Things go awry, however, when the wealthy man first loses his nerve, then goes off the specially-engineered metal pathway which keeps the time-travelers off the actual earth.  When the travelers return to the present, they find that things have changed in their own time and the wealthy man finds the explanation on the sole of his boot, where there is a dead butterfly from that far past.

My “what if”, then, is about the Ring and what might happen if, rather than it melt in the fires of Mt Doom,

(rather than use a more dramatic image, I’ve thought it interesting to use this by Pauline Baynes, who illustrated both some of Tolkien’s work as well as, at Tolkien’s recommendation, Lewis’ Narnia books)

it fell (literally) into other hands than Gollum’s.

(this is by one of my heroes among the many excellent Tolkien illustrators, Ted Nasmith, who often picks scenes from all over JRRT’s works, as well as depicting them with such flair)

Its first hand was, of course, Sauron’s, until Isildur defeated him and cut the ring from his fiery finger.

(this is by “Tulikoura”, who describes himself on his website as someone who loves traditional illustration, and here’s a LINK to that site so that you can see his other work: https://www.deviantart.com/tulikoura )

And here’s our first—and very easy—What If:  what if, instead of keeping the Ring, saying that it was “weregild [blood price] for my father, and my brother” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”), Isildur had tossed the Ring into the fire, as his surviving companions urged him?  As happened when the Ring was finally destroyed, I presume that Isildur and the others would have felt that:

“…the earth rocked beneath their feet.  Then rising swiftly up, far above the Towers of the Black Gate, high above the mountains, a vast soaring darkness sprang into the sky, flickering with fire…And as the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky.  Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent:  for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 4, “The Field of Cormallen”)

(another spectacular Nasmith)

Should this have happened, The Hobbit might still have occurred—after all, although Bilbo uses the Ring to avoid goblins and forest elves and even Smaug, we might imagine him proving his developing burglarious skills by normal means.  After all, the author says of Hobbits: 

“They possessed from the first the art of disappearing swiftly and silently, when large folk whom they do not wish to meet come blundering by; and this art they have developed until to Men it may seem magical.  But Hobbits have never, in fact, studied magic of any kind, and their elusiveness is due solely to professional skills that heredity and practice, and a close friendship with the earth, have rendered inimitable by bigger and clumsier races.” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue I:  “Concerning Hobbits”)

As for The Lord of the Rings, well, no Ring, no lord, even though Sauron was well on his way to a come-back in the later Third Age, even without the Ring.

(the Hildebrandts at their wildest)

After the Ring had betrayed Isildur to the orcs, however,

it was acquired in time by Gollum, but, for all its potential power on the hand of its maker (after all the Barad-dur itself was founded upon that power—The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”), Gollum uses it for nothing more than eavesdropping and relatively petty nastiness, revealing, as Gandalf says, something about the true nature of what he had found:  “The ring had given him power according to his stature.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)  Thus, had Gollum never lost it, he would never have been anything more than he already was—a sneaking nobody deep under the Misty Mountains (although he might have slipped up on Bilbo in the dark and The Hobbit would have ended rather abruptly).

Bilbo did find the Ring, however, but, like Gollum, although in a less sinister way, it’s simply part of a disappearing act, even the last time he uses it, at his joint birthday party with Frodo.  It originally saved him from Gollum in that role, but that may have been Bilbo’s ultimate salvation, as well, as Gandalf replies to Frodo’s cry, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”:

“Pity?  It was Pity that stayed his hand.  Pity, and Mercy:  not to strike without need.  And he has been well rewarded, Frodo.  Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so.  With Pity.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)

But what would have happened, had Bilbo kept the Ring?  Would that earlier act of mercy have continued to save him?  Two possibilities, perhaps stages of the same fate, might occur, Gollum being our example.  In the first stage, as Gandalf tells Frodo:

“But still the thing was eating up his mind, of course, and the torment had become almost unbearable…He hated the dark, and he hated light more:  he hated everything, and the Ring most of all.”

That this was already happening to Bilbo is suggested by his remark to Gandalf:

“…And yet it would be a relief in a way not to be bothered with it any more.  It has been so growing on my mind lately.  Sometimes I have felt it was like an eye looking at me.  And I am always wanting to put it on and disappear, don’t you know; or wondering if it is safe and pulling it out to make sure.  I tried locking it up, but I found I couldn’t rest without it in my pocket.  I don’t know why…” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”)

The second and final stage for Bilbo might be:

“A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo.  It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it.  At most he plays with the idea of handing it on to someone else’s care—and that only at an early stage, when it first begins to grip.”

That Ring’s eventual escape from Bilbo might appear simply as a loss—Gollum had no idea that it had slipped from his finger in The Hobbit—but it might be much worse, as happened to Isildur:  “The Ring was trying to get back to its master.  It had slipped from Isildur’s hand and betrayed him; then when a chance came it caught poor Deagol, and he was murdered…”

as Gandalf explains to Frodo.

But with our next character, Frodo, we move from the past of the Ring to the present of The Lord of the Rings, and we’ll consider more What Ifs in Ringing False (2) in the next posting.

Meanwhile, thanks, as ever, for reading,

Stay well,

Refrain from picking up small shiny objects in tunnels,

And know that, as always, there’s



The Staff of Life

(“Here is bread, which strengthens a man’s heart, and therefore called the staff of life…”

Matthew Henry, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, 1708-1710, commentary on Psalm CIV, Verse 15)

Merry and Pippin are in trouble.  Separated from their companions in their search for the missing Frodo, they tangle with a band of Orcs, witness the fall of Boromir,

and are carried off, eastwards, towards Saruman’s lair, at Isengard.

As they are driven on by the orcs, there are occasional pauses for breath and, at one point, Pippin is handed a meal:

“An Orc stooped over him, and flung him some bread and a strip of raw dried flesh.  He ate the stale grey bread hungrily, but not the meat.  He was famished but not yet so famished as to eat flesh flung to him by an Orc, the flesh of he dared not guess what creature.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)

The grey bread, in fact, may not necessarily have been grey from age—rye flour when baked into loaves can have a natural grey look—

As for the dried meat, I always think of something like South African biltong,

but Pippin is right to be suspicious, remembering the previous words of Ugluk the captain of the Uruk-hai:

“We are the servants of Saruman the Wise, the White Hand:  the Hand that gives us man’s-flesh to eat.”

As much as they often seem more like hordes of goblins (Tolkien blends goblins and Orcs together after The Hobbit)

than drilled troops, the Orcs, however, at least Saruman’s Uruk-hai, are actually war-bands of soldiers with some discipline(as Ugluk says, when some of Sauron’s Orcs complain about his plans:  “By the White Hand!  What’s the use of sending out mountain-maggots on a trip, only half trained.”)  We can imagine then that what is tossed to Pippin is actually a typical Orc military ration, containing the sorts of things which possess some nourishment, are portable, and which can keep for a long time.

Since the days of the Romans, a major issue for standing armies has been how to feed soldiers on campaign.  The Romans issued their soldiers with some basics, including grains of various sorts, which the soldiers would grind into flour in portable hand-mills

and bake into various basic forms of bread, sometimes being something like modern pita

or even so-called “campfire bread”—dough wrapped around a stick.

(for a good introduction to Roman military eating, see:  https://www.roman-reenactor.com/roman%20military%20bread%20making.html )

Such large, organized, and permanent armies wouldn’t appear again in Europe until the 17th century, when monarchs like Louis XIV (1638-1715),

eager to extend their reach—and their territory—would begin to build bigger and bigger forces.

Then the same problem which challenged the Romans arose once more–how to feed armies on the march–and part of the solution was to establish depots along the major military routes, with bakeries attached, so that soldiers could be issued fresh bread every few days as they passed such depots on their way into the field.

Another possibility was to develop portable ovens, which could march along with the troops and, when they stopped, the ovens could be stoked and bread could appear for evening meals.

A third possibility would be to develop some sort of long-lasting bread, something which could be stored for long periods without losing at least some of its nutritive value.  As sailors began to make longer and longer voyages from the days of the Age of Discovery on, this was a problem for mariners as well as for soldiers and the solution was what was called “ship’s biscuit”, a hardened version of a mixture of salt, water, and flour.

With such basic ingredients, this would seem to have the potential to last forever, but there was one problem:  not only did sailors eat these cracker-like things, but so did weevils—

(Here is a little scene from Peter Weir’s wonderful film, Master and Commander, where you can see both biscuit and bugs:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-aPp7Kiiyg )

These horrible little passengers actually came from the flour out of which the biscuits were made

and can be evident in several stages, from larvae to six-legged insects.  For something on the disposal of them, see this little documentary presented by the ship’s cook of the Cutty Sark, a famous tea clipper:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Onem-n-y64

Ship’s biscuit supplied sailors on long voyages.  With its alternate name of “hard tack” or “hard crackers” or, as governments called it, “army bread”, it was baked, packed,

and shipped to feed soldiers in the US Civil War.  Just like its naval cousin, it would seem to last forever, but, just like that cousin, it was prone to bugs and, just as bad, it soon became very hard on the teeth

—and this in a world where dentistry was just beginning to become a medical science (although details like scrubbing hands and instruments after each operation would only appear later—and slowly—in the 19th century).

Pippin—and Merry—were handed an Orc ration issued to its soldiers by the Sauronic or Sarumanic government, but there was an alternative in Middle-earth and both of the Hobbits had tasted it:  lembas.

Because it clearly is similar to something like hard tack, Gimli mistakes it for cram, which he describes as “such as the Dale-men make for journeys in the wild.”  He is corrected by the Elves, who tell him that it has a like purpose, “But we call it lembas or waybread, and it is more strengthening than any food made by Men, and it is more pleasant than cram, by all accounts.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 8, “Farewell to Lorien”)

More than once, we see this waybread sustaining characters, even in the worst of circumstances, as on the final, nearly-fatal, slog to Mt Doom, where the narrator says of Sam:

“As for himself, though weary and under a shadow of fear, he still had some strength left.  The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die.  It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats.  And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travelers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods.  It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.”  (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 3, “Mount Doom”)

Tolkien so believed in this inherent spiritual quality that, seeing it turned into a “food concentrate” in an early proposed film script (which he clearly hated—I think that some of the strongest language in Letters appears here), he wrote:

“We are not exploring the Moon or any other more improbable region.  No analysis in any laboratory would discover chemical properties of lembas that made it superior to other cakes of wheat-meal…In the book lembas has two functions. It is a ‘machine’ or device for making credible the long marches with little provision, in a world in which as I have said ‘miles are miles.’  But that is relatively unimportant.  It also has a much larger significance, of what one might hesitatingly call a ‘religious’ kind.”  (from a letter of June, 1958, to Forrest J. Ackerman, Letters, 274-275)

Although our breads—and they come in many different forms, from many different grains—

aren’t supplied by the Elves of Lorien, perhaps, in their ability to be the staff of our lives, we can see them as having a little of the spiritual quality of lembas?

As ever, thanks for reading,

Chew slowly and thoughtfully,

And know that, as always, there’s




For more on ship’s biscuit, see:  https://historiesoftheunexpected.com/magazine/the-unexpected-history-of-ships-biscuits/   This is from a really interesting website, Histories of the Unexpected, in which two very bright and witty men investigate, well, just about anything.  Warning:  this site could be addicting—once you listen to one podcast, can you stop?  https://historiesoftheunexpected.com/

In Mint Condition

Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

A Nazgul

(By Anato Finnstark—I very much like the misty effect of the rider)

is prowling the Shire, asking about “Baggins”.

 He has made the mistake not only of trying to get information out of Farmer Maggot, but of trying to bribe him, when told that he’s in the wrong part of the Shire:

“ ‘Baggins has left,’ he answered in a whisper.  ‘He is coming.  He is not far away.  I wish to find him.  If he passes will you tell me?  I will come back with gold.’ “ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 4, “A Short Cut to Mushrooms”)

Although Maggot rejects that offer of gold, I found it interesting.  Where will he go to obtain such gold?  And what gold will it be?

Unfortunately, there is no answer in the text to either question.  If he’s not simply lying (who would trust a Nazgul?), he is on horseback, not on one of those dragon/pterodactyl mounts the Nazgul are fond of.

A trip back to Mordor for cash would take too long, then, when he’s in hot pursuit of Frodo.  This would suggest, if he is telling the truth, that he has a local source.  It will later become clear that Saruman has agents in the Shire, so perhaps Sauron does, too?

As to the second question, the Nazgul says, “gold”, so I presume he means not ingots,

but coins of some sort.

But the question then arises, what kind of coins might these be?

Coins are mentioned a few times in The Lord of the Rings, including the price of Bill, the pony—“twelve silver pennies” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 11, “A Knife in the Dark”)—but I’m not aware that these coins are ever described in any detail—and whose coins are they and where do they come from? 

Because all such information is lacking, I imagine that the Nazgul, if telling the truth, has, somewhere, a sack of coins from Mordor itself—gold coins, at that.  Western Mordor, at least the part we see in Sam and Frodo’s travels, seems utterly barren,

but Sauron has armies to feed and the myriad horses and mules and oxen needed to carry such armies beyond his gates, and that food and those beasts have to come from somewhere.  Even if we presume that much can be produced from green lands beyond the Sea of Nurnen, Sauron has allies farther south in Harad, suggesting that he has commerce of some sort with them and, as we know from those twelve silver pennies, Middle-earth appears not to be based upon a barter-system.

So what would such coins look like?

The earliest Western coins came from Lydia in western Asian Minor in the 7th century BC and carried on the obverse (the front) the images of bulls and lions.

Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II, seems to have been the first to put his own profile on a coin,

but that appears to have set a precedent for later rulers, with Julius Caesar being perhaps the first Roman to stamp his profile on his currency.

(This is rather an ironic coin, showing Caesar on the obverse and describing him as “dictatore perpetuo”—“being dictator for life”, a position he held for only a couple of months before he was murdered.)

You’ll notice that Caesar, like Philip before him, doesn’t wear an elaborate crown of some sort, like Darius on this early Persian coin,

but, instead, has only a simple wreath (not so modest, in fact, since, because it was used in sporting events, it could suggest that Philip—and Caesar after him—was a champion at being a ruler).  When the Carolingians began their own currency, in the later years of the 8th century AD in what we might think of as “France+”, they adopted a Roman model and so here’s their greatest ruler, Charlemagne (748-814 AD), looking more like a Roman emperor than a Germanic king, which is exactly what he intended.

This is, by the way, a silver denarius—a silver penny, just like those paid to Bill Ferny–and it’s just packed with information.  First, of course, is the portrait itself, with the ruler in profile (a tradition still in force on coins today), wreath of office firmly on his head.  And, because virtually no one would ever see Charlemagne himself, there’s his name, in a kind of Germanic Latin spelling, “Karolus”.  (Karl/Carl was his actual name.  What we use is a kind of name + title—Charl-le-magne—Charles le Magne, “Charles the Great”, which dates from a later time.)  Beyond his name are two important abbreviations:  IMP “emperor” and AUG “augustus”.   When Pope Leo III had crowned Charlemagne in Rome on Christmas Day, 800 AD,

(This is from the 14th-century Grandes Chroniques de France, so the artist had no idea of the wreath, when it came to an accurate depiction of imperial headgear.)

he named him Imperator Romanorum, “Emperor of the Romans”, which, in fact, implied that Charlemagne was the successor to the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine VI, whom the Western world thought of as the “Roman emperor”, being the ruler of the surviving half of the old Roman empire.  Charlemagne never controlled that eastern empire, but it was a grand claim and Charlemagne was a grand (and very successful) ruler.  To Imperator, Charlemagne added Augustus, the most famous of Roman emperors (63 BC-14 AD),

and (according to Augustus himself), the restorer of Rome to former glories, implying that he, Charlemagne, was the new Augustus.  We might think that Charlemagne is also making a reference to the period after Diocletian (c.244-311 AD)

had divided the original Roman empire into two halves, each ruled by a co-emperor called an “Augustus”, suggesting that he is the actual monarch of the western half of the empire, even while claiming to be the emperor of the eastern half.  (The “M” under Charlemagne’s profile, by the way, stands for one of the government’s mints, that at Mainz.)

With such bold claims on the obverse, we see a different picture on the reverse (the back).  Here is depicted, it is now thought, the aediculum, the “little building” which the emperor Constantine had built over what he believed to be the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem (c.326 AD) and, around it are placed the words religio xristiana, “Christian religion”.  Many of the peoples at the edges of Charlemagne’s empire were still worshippers of other, older gods and one of the goals of his imperial expansion was to expand Christianity, as well.  Depending upon your position, then, this might be a reassurance that Charlemagne was a firm supporter of your faith, or, should you be an older believer, that things were going to change under his rule.

With all of that behind us, what can we see as one of the Nazgul’s promised gold coins?

Let’s begin with a blank.

As we’ve seen, it’s a long tradition to place one’s kingly profile on the obverse, but what is Sauron’s profile?  As originally one of the Maiar (under the name Mairon), Sauron had no permanent form, being a spirit who could put on forms as needed, which Sauron did, over time.  After his defeat and loss of the Ring at the end of the Second Age, however, he doesn’t seem to have re-embodied himself as, for example, Gandalf and Saruman did, instead choosing a kind of symbolic form, which suggested eternal (menacing) vigilance, like Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984

This image then turns up everywhere his subjects go, from shields

to graffiti on public monuments.

(At the Cross-roads, by Ted Nasmith–one of my favorite Tolkien artists, especially because he often chooses to illustrate scenes no one else has–and with a real sense of place.)

So, imagine that the obverse has, at its center, the Lidless Eye.

Coins like Charlemagne’s and Caesar’s and even Philip’s include the ruler’s name:   Karolus, Caesar, though Philip’s name has a genitive—possessive—ending, “Of Philip”.  We might assume that that simply means that the coin is his, but we might also see a more ambiguous message:   everything behind this coin—the metal mine, the mint, the power to control such things–all belongs to him—and maybe that’s true even of the holder of the coin, as well.

But Caesar is called “dictator for life” and Charlemagne “emperor” and “augustus”—what should Sauron’s title be? 

When the heralds of Gondor summon him at the Morannon, he is referred to as “the Lord of the Black Land” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 10, “The Black Gate Opens”), which seems a little meek.  When the Mouth of Sauron arrives for a parley, he refers to him as “Sauron the Great”, which is I’m sure how Sauron refers to himself, so this would give us two possibilities.  Around the Eye it might read:  SAURON LORD OF THE BLACK LAND or SAURON THE GREAT.

Philip gives his name in his native Greek and Caesar naturally uses his native tongue, Latin, for his inscription.  Although Charlemagne spells his name, as I’ve noted, somewhat Germanically, using a K for a Latin C (not surprising—his Frankish ancestors were Germanic tribesmen who invaded northern France—hence the name “France”), his inscription is an imitation of a Roman imperial coin, with his titles in Latin inscriptional shorthand.  In what language would the inscription on Sauron’s coin be in?  If he wanted it to be read in contemporary Middle-earth, we might think he would use the common tongue, written out in Tengwar.

If he wanted to suggest something more powerful—and mysterious?—he might use Tengwar, but the words might be in the Black Speech, rather like the inscription on the Ring.

With the eye and one of those two labels on the obverse, what would be on the reverse?

The center of Sauron’s power—his capital—is the Barad-dur, the Black Tower, so I could easily see it represented there, with no inscription, simply a single figure of menace (in John Howell’s image).

As always, thanks for reading and

So, replaying the scene where the Nazgul tries to tempt Farmer Maggot, perhaps we can see the Nazgul, rather than promising a future reward, tossing one such coin to land at the Farmer’s feet, hissing, “And more to come, if you will tell me.”

Stay well,

Remember that all that glisters is not gold,

And know that, as ever, there’s




If you would like to read more about Middle-earth and currency, please see the postings for 19 April (“Spare Change?”) and 26 April (“Hoarders”), 2017.

Placing a Name, Naming a Place

Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

For me, one of the many pleasures of The Lord of the Rings is its landscape—not just that map which caused Tolkien so many hours of worry, but all of the places on it with all of their names, each clearly made with care and attention to linguistic detail, beginning with the creation of the Shire and all it contains, but moving beyond it to encompass the whole of Middle-earth.  As he explained in a letter to Rayner Unwin:

“Yet actually in an imaginary country and period, as this one, coherently made, the nomenclature is a more important element than in an ‘historical’ novel.” (Letter to Rayner Unwin, 3 July, 1956, Letters, 250)

And yet, for all of that care, Tolkien the story-teller never draws attention to that naming.  As in any country, especially a very old one, as the Shire and, in turn, Middle-earth, are meant to be, the names are just that and, like the land itself, they have become worn-down natural features.  As JRRT himself writes in that same letter to Rayner Unwin:

“Actually the Shire Map plays a very small part in the narrative, and most of its purpose is a descriptive build-up.”

It’s always been a disappointment, then, to me that the main ancient telling of the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece

fell into the hands of a man who, unlike JRRT, was not the poet to tell such a romantic story, but was, instead, Apollonius of Rhodes (first half 3rd Century BC),

whose narrative, The Argonautica,

(This is a very early printed version, from 1521.)

is laid out in 4 books:  two to get Jason to his goal, Colchis,

one for a romance with Medea, the daughter of the nasty local king,

(shown here in a later murderous moment)

and one for grabbing the Fleece (and Medea)

and heading for home on a trip which includes, besides touring the Danube valley, carrying their ship, the Argo, across a desert.

This is a story with a typical folktale beginning:  Pelias, half-brother of Aeson, has overthrown Aeson and taken over the throne of Iolcus.  Now, Aeson’s son, Jason, is coming back to Iolcus, and uncle Pelias has been warned by an oracle to beware of a man wearing one sandal.  Jason, in fact, has just lost one of his, when he carried an old lady across a stream.

(Because there is an old folktale under this, that’s not really an old lady, it’s the goddess, Hera, in disguise, to test Jason—he obviously passes and she will help him throughout the rest of the story.)

Pelias, to get rid of Jason, gives him a quest:  bring back the Golden Fleece from the far side of the world.  (Without going into more detail, suffice it to say that the Fleece was on a flying escape ram piloted by Phrixus, along with his sister, Helle, who are—what else?  escaping the plots of an evil stepmother.)  This is meant to be an impossible task and Pelias has every expectation that Jason will not return, with or without the Fleece.

(This is the elaborate back of a 2nd century AD Roman mirror.)

What has always frustrated me about this telling is that, potentially, it’s packed with interesting adventures—harpies,

mobile cliffs,


not to mention the fact that the Fleece itself is guarded by a sleepless dragon.

But, although he writes about these things, what really seems to interest Apollonius aren’t such epic challenges, but the origins of place names along Jason’s route.  This toponymy—the study of which comes, appropriately, from two Greek words, topos, “place” and onoma, “name”—then turns the narrative at times into a kind of geographic/mythological check list and so we spend what sometimes feels like half the trip forced to listen not to another Homer, but to a rather pedantic tour guide.

There are those scholars who have, in recent years, argued that Apollonius never intends to be another Homer and, coming from a later age of Greek literature (the so-called Hellenistic Era), he has different goals and, while this could certainly be true, for me, an epic story like this should be epic, not microscopic.

Tolkien, in contrast, although he spent so much time creating those place names and attaching them to geographical features, still sees them as simply part of the “build-up”, that is, the physical context in which his characters move.

I want to emphasize, however, that, although Apollonius may overfocus on toponymy and sometimes weigh his story down with it, this isn’t to argue that toponymy in itself is a dull subject:  on the contrary, it’s a very interesting subject and Tolkien was certainly one of those interested, once writing to his son, Christopher, that “I like history, and am moved by it, but its finest moments for me are those in which it throws light on words and names!”  (letter to Christopher Tolkien, 21 February, 1958, Letters, 264)

This isn’t surprising as JRRT, with his keen ear and eye for language, lived in an England whose very  history could be traced in broad terms in the strata of its toponymy.  Traces of its Celtic settlers barely survive, but some place and river names, like the Avon, reflect the language of the pre-Roman inhabitants (afon meaning “river”).  Roman occupation in all its might appears in every place with “chester/cester/caster” as an ending, from Latin castra, “military camp”.  The Anglo-Saxons are everywhere with endings like -ton (old tun, “enclosure”) and -hurst (hurst, “clearing”).  Though there are many fewer Norman names, we can still see traces of their take-over in a compound like Ashby-de-la-Zouch, which I mentioned in my last as the scene of the great tournament in Scott’s Ivanhoe.  This name even adds a Viking element, by, “settlement”, to an Anglo-Saxon ash, “ash tree” together with the family name of the later Norman owners, the La Zouche family, who owned a nearby castle in the 13th century.  Putting all of these elements together gives us hundreds of years of medieval history, while also making a bold political statement:  “the settlement among the ash trees” it begins—and then, as if in large letters on a billboard on the way into the village—”NOW OWNED BY THE LA ZOUCHE FAMILY”.

(Just in case you don’t have an ash tree in your mental topography)

How little we would know about that place if it had simply been called “Ash” and I wonder what the Argonautica might have been like if, like Tolkien, Apollonius could have loved his toponymic trees, but let them stand as only a part of his narrative forest?

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Stay well,

Wherever you are, look at a place name and wonder,

And, as ever, know that there’s




With this, essay #363, doubtfulsea.com is now beginning its 7th year.  Years ago, a fortune teller (yes—a real one, a member of the really interesting Romani culture ), told me that my lucky number was 7, so I’m looking forward to another year full of essays about everything from epic to adventure to the occasional film review (I have the Jackson film of Mortal Engines first on my list) to whatever catches my interest and, if you’re a regular reader, you know that this means almost anything.

La Belle Dame

Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

Unlike The Hobbit, which is written in a chatty modern style, much of The Lord of the Rings is written in what we now might see as an elevated tone, with lines like

“ ‘Nay, Gandalf!’ said the King.  ‘You do not know your own skill in healing.  It shall not be so.  I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be.  Thus shall I sleep better.’ “

 Such language in a novel published in the 1950s, could be called “Wardour Street English”, after an area of London known  in the 19th century for its antique dealers,

and, to some, it reeked of old-fashioned melodrama, with high emotions spoken in archaic language, full of “Thou villain!” and  “Seek ye to do scath?”

As one who weighed practically every word of the many drafts of the book, Tolkienreplied to criticism of the lines above by writing:

“For a king who spoke in a modern style would not really think in such terms at all, and any reference to sleeping quietly in the grave would be a deliberate archaism of expression on his part (however worded) far more bogus than the actual ‘archaic’ English that I have used.”  (draft of unsent letter to Hugh Brogan, September, 1955—Letters, 226)

We can accept his reasoning or not, but JRRT’s literary medievalism already had a relatively long history.  Beyond the deliberate Elizabethan archaizing of Edmund Spencer’s ( 1552-1599)                

The Faerie Queene (1590-1596),

real  sustained interest in the medieval past—as people of the time understood it– began to appear in the 18th century with everything from Bishop Percy’s (1729-1811)

Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765)

(an early edition)

to  Horace Walpole’s (1717-1797)

“gothique” novel—the first of its kind—The Castle of Otranto (1765),

 to Walpole’s own “castle”, Strawberry Hill (seen in the background of his portrait),

which still survives (it’s a wonderfully wacky building, full of architectural surprises).

The “Middle Ages” became an abiding fascination in Britain, extending through the 19th century.  Here, not content to read those novels of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832),

like Ivanhoe (1819) and The Talisman (1825), which were set in the medieval past, there were those who were imaginative enough (and wealthy enough) who wanted to relive a bit of that long-ago time by holding a joust, like the one described at Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Ivanhoe.  This was the famous Eglinton Tournament of 1839.

(This is a color plate from the 1843 commemorative book—you can have your own copy from the Internet Archive by going to:  https://archive.org/details/eglintontourname00rich/page/n41/mode/2up  –and don’t forget to contribute—many of the LINKS I’ve included in doubfulsea postings over the years have all come from this really important site.)

By mid-century, Alfred, Lord Tennyson  (1809-1892)

was producing, under the omnibus title Idylls of the King (1859-1885),

a long series of poems about King Arthur and his court.  For modern readers, I suspect that they would appear heavy and sometimes overly-moralistic—Guinevere, for example, instead of being nearly burnt at the stake, but rescued just in time by Lancelot, 

as she is in Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur, one of Tennyson’s main sources, repents her adultery, is forgiven by Arthur, and dies in a convent. 

There is a wealth of Arthurian illustration from this period and, should you want to see many examples, I recommend that you visit the University of Rochester (New York)’s Camelot Project at:  https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot-project  This is a comprehensive site for Arthurian subjects and full of things to read and look at.

There is an alternative view of that near-burning, however, by a very important source for medievalism in later-Victorian Britain, as well as a powerful influence upon Tolkien, William Morris (1834-1896).

In 1858, Morris published The Defence of Guinevere and Other Poems .

In the title poem, Guinevere’s defence isn’t an act of penitence, as she is, in fact, not in the least concerned with Tennyson’s Victorian morality, but a way of stalling her sentence until Lancelot appears to rescue her.   From its opening stanza, this is a very different approach to the Arthur story and, if you’d like to read it for yourself, here’s a LINK:  https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.45751

Morris takes us late into this medieval revival, but I want to conclude by going back to the beginning of the 19th century, to one of my favorite examples of such literature, Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, written, it seems, in a single draft in 1819. We have two different versions, however, one published in 1820, during the poet’s lifetime, and a second, which is, if you know the poem, more likely the version you are acquainted with.  Although this was published in 1848, long after Keats’ death in Rome in 1821,  it appears, in fact, to be the first version of the text.  (Here’s a LINK so that you can compare the versions:   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci  )

The poem itself belongs to a specific story type, that of someone who is taken by people from another world—perhaps, in contemporary terms, it would be “alien abduction”—

but, to earlier creators and their audiences, this would be “taken to Faerie”,  a theme as early as Irish and Welsh myth, and which appears in a number of later ballads—a major source for Keats—like “Tam Lin” (Child Ballad #39—here’s  a LINK to one—among a number of versions:  http://www.tam-lin.org/versions/39A.html )

and  “Thomas Rymer” (Child #37—and a LINK:  https://sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/child/ch037.htm  ).

In such ballads—and in older stories—a mortal is either invited to, carried off to, or seduced to go to, another world, sometimes by an enchanting (literally) woman, as in the Keats poem.  Often, the mortal has either to be rescued, or returns to this world only to find that time, as in the case of Narnia, isn’t measured in the same way, and it’s hundreds of years later, as in WB Yeats’  (1865-1939) early long poem

“The Wanderings of Oisin” (1885) (OH-sheen).

Here’s the 1848 text of the Keats poem—

There’s a striking setting of this by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

and here’s a LINK to a beautiful performance by the mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNa-3zuSrY4

The English satirist, Michael Flanders (1922-1975),

once translated Keats’ title as “the beautiful lady who never says thank you” and, rereading the poem, perhaps you’d agree?

Thanks for reading, as always,

Stay well,

Decline invitations by unknown (but seductive) persons,

And know that there’s always



U- and Dys-

As always, dear readers, welcome.

In 1516, an English intellectual and sometime diplomat, Sir Thomas More (1477-1535),

published a book with the easy-to-remember title:  De Optimo Rei Publicae Statu Deque Nova Insula Utopia Libellus Vere Aureus, Nec Minus Salutaris Quam Festivus

(This is from the Basel publication of 1518.)

“Concerning the Best Situation of a State and About the New Island ‘Utopia’, A Little Book Not Only Golden [But] No Less Beneficial Than Witty”

which was, in time, not surprisingly shortened to Utopia.

(This is from the second English translation, by Bishop Burnet, in 1684.)

It claimed to be a kind of travel tale, in which More cleverly uses the background of the account of Amerigo Vespucci’s (1451-1512),

(from a posthumous portrait)

voyages to the New World, published in 1505,

(It says in Italian: “A Letter of Amerigo Vespucci about the islands new discovered in his four voyages”.)

to present a fictional participant, Raphael Hythlodaeus, who is not the “mariner” (nauclerus) More at first takes him to be, but someone “not unlearned in Latin and extremely adept in Greek” (linguae latinae non indoctus, et graecae doctissimus), being a philosopher, rather than a sailor.

In the text which follows, Hythlodaeus describes to More in great detail a newly-discovered island, Utopia, which has an idealized communal state.

The word “utopia” could be read two ways:

1. a Latinized version of Greek eutopia, “a fine place”

2. a Latinized version of Greek outopia, “no place”

In fact, as More’s original Latin name for it was Nusquama, from Latin nusquam, meaning, among other things “nowhere”, and adding to this Raphael’s last name, “Hythlodaeus”, from the Greek word [h]uthlos, “nonsense”, we can see that More intends us to see this place as something to be discussed, but not believed.

From the same ending, -topia, we can also find a much darker possibility, a dystopia, literally a “bad place” and this term, as the very useful Etymonline informs us, which began as a medical term for “internal organ out of place”, had become, by the 1860s, the opposite of the other possible meaning of utopia as “good place”. 

When I think about dystopias in terms of literary history, I immediately think first of the future world depicted by HG Wells (1866-1946)

in his 1895 short novel, The Time Machine.

Originally published as a series in The New Review, it describes, among other spots on his trip into the future, the unnamed protagonist’s time in the England of 802,701ad.  Here, the landscape is populated by the Eloi, who live above ground and seem like the ultimate ideal of Arcadians:  simple, childlike people, like Victorian aristocrats, who consume but don’t produce, and, as the time-traveler soon discovers, the Morlocks, who live below ground and are, it seems, the descendants of all the millions of lower-class people who were the actual workers and producers in Victorian times.  The Eloi, it turns out, only exist because of the Morlocks, but, in return, the Morlocks exist because they feed upon the Eloi.

More’s Utopia was clearly meant as a commentary upon early 16th-century society and, in the stratification of the English population into only two groups, one idle, but harmless, the other diligent but malevolent (besides consuming the Eloi, they steal the time machine and attempt to capture the traveler), we can easily imagine that Wells is suggesting that all is not well in late-Victorian society.  Other, later dystopian works, like Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World,

in which a society is ruled by those who control its genetics, and Orwell’s 1984

where we see what appears to be a worn-out post-WW2 Britain as a kind of regimented and fear-ridden Stalinist state, provide much more detailed versions of a grim future (but such fun to read about) and my most recent experience is clearly an even more elaborate version of such a future.

I’ve just finished the first volume of Philip Reeve’s

series, Mortal Engines,

and its setting—a bleak far future, in which many of the world’s cities, the initial focus being on London, are now mounted on huge treads and roam the empty countryside, gobbling up smaller cities.

The word “steampunk” has been attached to this future by some critics, and I can see why, it being a sort of alternate history in which elements of many centuries are all mixed together—electricity with airships,

(a wonderful image, by David Wyatt)

firearms with swords, but it’s also a dystopia, the London depicted

 in particular being a kind of monstrous exaggeration of current London, with the workers of the city being divided into guilds and social stratification being extreme, the richest and most powerful living at the top, the poor majority residing in the lowest tiers, and technology, in the form of the Engineering Guild, being the dominant.

It’s perhaps a sign of the present day, however, in that, for all that I can think of more dystopias in modern fiction, I’m stumped to think of utopias in the sense of “good places”—perhaps the best we can hope for, then, as that all of these dark places are and will remain utopias in Thomas More’s sense.

Stay well,

Learn Newspeak (just in case),

And know that there is always




In 1909, E.M Forster (1879-1970), whom you might know as the author of A Room with a View, A Passage to India, and my favorite, Howards End, published a really creepy—because it’s so prescient—short science fiction story, “The Machine Stops”.  I won’t say anything more about it, except that it’s, for the present, an especially striking example of a dystopia:  http://www.visbox.com/prajlich/forster.html

Sticks and Stones

As ever, welcome, dear readers.

I imagine that you, like me, read something, then have a bit of it pop up in your mind when you least expect it.  Here’s what recently popped up in mine:

“They shot well with the bow, for they were keen-eyed and sure at the mark.  Not only with bows and arrows.  If any Hobbit stooped for a stone, it was well to get quickly under cover, as all trespassing beasts knew very well.” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, I, “Concerning Hobbits”)

When I thought further about this, it seemed like an odd detail:  Hobbit archers turn up in the Prologue when it is said that:  “To the last battle at Fornost with the Witch-lord of Angmar they sent some bowmen to the aid of the king, or so they maintained…” and, in “The Scouring of the Shire”, there are definitely bows at work:  after Grima murders Saruman, “Before Frodo could recover or speak a word, three hobbit bows twanged and Wormtongue fell dead.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”).  But does any Hobbit ever prove his prowess with a stone in the novel?  I thought not—until I was reminded by a friend that, if not a stone, someone expertly used the missile to hand—

“Sam turned quickly.  ‘And you, Ferny,’ he said, ‘put your ugly face out of sight, or it will get hurt.’  With a sudden flick, quick as lightning, an apple left his hand and hit Bill square on the nose.  He ducked too late, and curses came from behind the hedge.  ‘Waste of a good apple,’ said Sam regretfully, and strode on.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 11, “A Knife in the Dark”)

This launching of missiles—other than arrows—at heads then brought back something from my last posting, which was about how to wear—or not to wear—helmets.  Among my images was one of Goliath, in which he was (literally) being cut down to size by David.

(This is from the “Huntingfield Psalter”, dated to 1212-1220ad.)

I grew up with Judeo-Christian Bible stories and the story of Goliath’s defeat was always a favorite, but, when I was little, I was a little unclear as to how David actually did it:  after all, did he have a slingshot like mine?  (Or a catapult, as my English friends call it.)

And Goliath was huge and covered in armor—wouldn’t a stone from a slingshot just bounce off?

(This is an engraving by Robert Cruickshank, 1789-1856, which I include because, although Goliath looks like he’s dressed to play someone in an early-Victorian revival of a Greek tragedy, the artist had read his Bible carefully and included Goliath’s armiger, or armor-bearer, who is usually left out of other versions of the illustration.)

For a better understanding of just what happened, I turned to the late 4h-century AD Latin translation of the First Book of Samuel from the so-called “Vulgate” by St Jerome (c.342-420ad).  I chose this because it was the translation from which the medieval artist of the scene in the Huntingfield Psalter would have learned the story (all translations are mine).

So let’s start with Goliath.

4 Et egressus est vir spurius de castris Philisthinorum nomine Goliath, de Geth, altitudinis sex cubitorum et palmi:

5 et cassis ærea super caput ejus, et lorica squamata induebatur. Porro pondus loricæ ejus, quinque millia siclorum æris erat:

6 et ocreas æreas habebat in cruribus: et clypeus æreus tegebat humeros ejus.

7 Hastile autem hastæ ejus erat quasi liciatorium texentium: ipsum autem ferrum hastæ ejus sexcentos siclos habebat ferri: et armiger ejus antecedebat eum.

(First Samuel, Chapter 17)

“4 And there came out of the camp of the Philistines a bastard, by name Goliath from Geth, in height six cubits and a palm.  (Cubit is an ancient measurement with lots of possible variation, but, roughly, this makes him about 9 feet—about 2.75 metres—tall.)

5 And [there was) upon his head a bronze helmet and he was dressed in a breastplate of scale—moreover, the weight of his breastplate was 5000 bronze shekels.  (Shekel is a Biblical weight—5000 would equal about 125 pounds—about 57 kilograms.)

6 And bronze greaves he had on his shins and a bronze shield was covering his shoulders.

7 As well, the shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam—the iron [head] itself, moreover, of his spear  weighed 600 shekels of iron and his armor-bearer used to march in front of him.”  (A weaver’s beam was the top support of an upright loom, the sort used in the ancient world—here’s an illustration–

meaning that, like everything else about Goliath, it was much larger than normal.  600 shekels equals 15 pounds—that’s almost 7 kilograms—

and remember:  this is just the head of his spear.)

With all of this in mind, what is Goliath supposed to look like?  There is an immediate problem:  words like “cassis” and “clypeus” are more generic than technical, although “cassis” usually means a metal helmet and “clypeus” a round bronze shield.  There is a great deal of argument over the date—or dates—of the writing of Samuel, and armor and weapons change over time, so perhaps what we’re seeing here is a composite—or even a fantasy:  after all, Goliath is supposed to be 9 feet tall!

A quick inventory shows Goliath with:

1. a bronze helmet

2. bronze scale (lamellar) armor (in fact, the text uses the word lorica, which usually means a breastplate, but seems to be used here to mean a coat of scales)

3. bronze greaves

4. a bronze shield

5. an immense, iron-tipped spear

We’ll come back to that helmet, but lamellar armor is made up of layers of small, overlapping plates (lamellae) of leather, bronze, or, eventually, iron,sewn to a leather or cloth backing.  Here’s an Egyptian example from the 14th century BC, the lamellae being made of leather,

and here’s a section of Neo-Assyrian lamellae (900-600bc) from Nimrud.

As far as I can currently tell, greaves—metal shin guards—only appear with the Greeks, making them later perhaps than some other parts of this kit.  Here’s a pair from the 6th-2nd century BC (note the holes at the top of the left-hand one:  like helmets, greaves were lined to provide both an extra layer of protection and to prevent chafing of bronze on skin).

(From my experience in museums, by the way, it appears that, at least early Greek greaves were simply flexed to fit around the legs—no straps or buckles—and some of those I’ve seen show severe stress along the front, as if, with use, they began to wear out.)

We’re not told anything more about the clypeus, except that it’s bronze and covers the shoulders.  I’m presuming, by this, that the author/s mean that it was commonly carried on the back when out of combat—or not being lugged by Goliath’s armiger.

(This image comes from Hurstwic, which is a living-history group devoted to the Vikings.  There’s always something of interest to be found there at:  http://www.hurstwic.com/history/text/history.htm )

If we go by Greek examples, such shields weren’t just bronze, but were actually made of layers of wood, then covered with a sheet of bronze on the outer surface.  We are fortunate to have a late 5th-century BC example, from the Athenian Agora (a combination market/state buildings site)—

As for the spear, we are given nothing more than it’s large and has an iron head, but I want to return now to the helmet.  We know that it’s bronze, but a further detail gives us a little more.  In 17.49, it is said that David’s sling stone:

“percussit Philistheum in fronte et infixus est lapis in fronte eius et cecidit in faciem suam super terram”

“struck the Philistine in the forehead and the stone was stuck in his forehead and he fell onto his face on the ground”

From this, we can see that, although Goliath was wearing a bronze helmet, it was of an open-faced variety, which provided no protection for his forehead.

As I’ve said, taking all of this together, we may have only a fantasy figure, or a composite, but, to me, the closest I can imagine is perhaps an Assyrian, like this, reconstructed by Angus McBride—

Here, in both the left-hand and central figures, we see the open-faced helmet, the lamellar armor, the bronze-faced shield—there’s even a spear, if not a gigantic one.  The only items missing are the greaves.

 Reconstructing David is a much easier matter:  although King Saul attempts to arm him in somewhat of the same style as Goliath (17.38-39), after trying it on, David declines, saying that he’s a shepherd and most comfortable wearing his normal working clothes.  Thus, he takes with him to meet the giant Philistine only his staff (baculus—or baculum, since the noun seems to have both masculine and neuter genders) and his sling (funda—17.40)—and here was my childhood confusion.  A sling looks like this—

and is thus very different from my slingshot—

It’s not just the obvious difference in look.  What propelled the stone from my slingshot was a very large rubber band (“elastic”, if you’re in the UK) and such things didn’t come into being until the 19th century (AD).  What propelled the stone from David’s sling was the effect of his swinging the sling in several different possible ways (this is only one of them).

Although it looks like such a simple thing, a sling can be really deadly, the stones (or cast lead bullets, which both Greeks and Romans used) moving at anywhere from 60 to 100 miles per hour (97-160kmh).   Here’s a somewhat lurid but useful article from The Daily Mail on the subject: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4541318/Roman-sling-bullets-deadly-44-Magnum.html

And here’s a very convincing demonstration of what a sling and its stone can do:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0a_IHHcw6do

It’s no wonder that David’s stone stuck in Goliath’s forehead.

In Samuel, Goliath doesn’t seem to notice David’s sling, only his staff, shouting sarcastically:  “numquid ego canis sum quod tu venis ad me cum baculo?!” (17.43)

“You don’t think that I’m a dog that you come at me with a staff?”

But, rather than attempting to mock his (to him) diminutive opponent, Goliath should, as in the case of trespassing beasts and Hobbits, have headed for cover when he saw that David “elegit sibi quinque limpidissimos lapides de torrente et misit eos in peram pastoralem quam habebat secum et fundam manu tulit et processit adversum Philistheum” (17.40)—

“[David] picked out for himself five of the smoothest stones from the stream and put them into the shepherd’s pouch which he used to have with him and took [his] sling in hand and made his way towards the Philistine…”

Thanks for reading, as always,

Stay well,

Stay low,

And remember that, as ever, there’s



Being Hit on the Head Lessons

Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

There is a moment, in a famous Monty Python sketch (“The Argument Clinic”) in which the main character, played by Michael Palin, walks into a room where he’s immediately hit on the head. 

He’s then informed that this is “Being Hit on the Head Lessons”, to which he replies “What a stupid concept!” and the sketch ends.  (If you don’t remember or don’t know this scene, here’s a LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpAvcGcEc0k )

In early warfare, the lesson to be learned, however, was to how to shield your head, especially when your enemy carried a club in the form of a purpose-built mace or hand axe.

(from the so-called “Narmer Palette”, c.3000bc)

(from the victory stele of Naram-Sin, c.2250bc)

Egyptian soldiers don’t appear to have worn helmets, perhaps relying on their shields to fend off attacks to their heads,

but their early contemporaries, the Sumerians, produced bowl-shaped helmets of copper, as this skull, with its helmet (from the tomb of Queen Pu-abi, c.2600bc) still more-or-less intact, shows us,

as does this file of soldiers from the so-called “Vulture Stele” (c. 2460bc).

This is a simple protective covering, but a Sumerian king might wear something a bit more elaborate—

(first identified as the helmet of Mes-Kalam-Dug, 26th century BC—there is an interesting article on the subject here:  https://sumerianshakespeare.com/56701.html )

although it has been suggested that this, made from gold, might not have been worn in battle, as Angus McBride has pictured it here.

For the moment, note the perforations around its lower edges—I’ll come back to these shortly.

From such a basic beginning, helmets progressed to the more elaborate—though not necessarily more protective—cone-shapes of some Assyrian helmets,

(from the depiction of a siege from the palace of Tiglath-pileser III, at Nimrud, second half of the 8th c. BC)

although, as you may see depicted on the upper left-hand side of this relief, there were also helmets which were designed with the protection of some lower part of the head in mind.

(fragment of a relief from the palace of Ashurbanipal, second half of the 7th c. BC)

Without going into a lot of detail (like anything to do with armor, it’s a complex subject—just look at this table of the development of Greek helmets),

you can also see that helmets worn by the ancient Greeks were often constructed to protect the whole head—here’s a plain example–

(7th c. BC)

but here’s a grander one—

A difficulty with a helmet like this is easy to see:  it not only constricts your vision and hearing, but it would be really hot and stuffy in a Greek summer.  To gain some relief, it looks like it would be lifted and pushed back on the head when not in service, as we can see on numerous depictions of Athena, for example, like this, one of my favorite reliefs, which is sometimes called “The Mourning Athena” or “Athena Reading a Decree” (c460bc), but which I think may actually be Athena at a boundary stone, suggesting that the patron of Athens stands at the edge of its lands, ready to protect them.

The Romans, in turn, may first have learned about helmets from their “big brothers”, the Etruscans, who had originally lived to the north, but gradually colonized land south of the Romans, as well.  The Etruscans, in turn, had been powerfully influenced by the Greeks who, themselves colonized the far south of Italy, as well as Sicily. 

In time, the Romans combined this with what they learned from their contacts with the Celts, who moved into northern Italy and were famous metal-workers,

but developing their own styles over time.

If we continued our review, we would find that many generations of armorers, from the Romans all the way through the Middle Ages, were always seeking ways better to protect the head.

Two important details needed to be added to this, however, and they are commonly overlooked when you see someone put on a helmet, be it Greek, Roman, or medieval, in a film.  And, for the first of these, we need to return to that Sumerian king’s helmet.

You will notice, right away, that there is a hole just below the ear.  When we see people put on and take off helmets in film, they just plop them on and off, like a hat.  Here’s Jaime Lanister taking off his helmet in Game of Thrones.

In fact, real helmets don’t just stay on heads because the wearers want them to—they need to be tied  or buckled in place, like these, from the Great War.

(A footnote here:  soldiers might actually wear the strap on the back of the head during combat, as it was believed that the concussion from a shell burst in front would throw the brim of the helmet back and the strap might then snap a soldier’s neck.  Here’s a British soldier just behind the front with the strap in the rear.)

So, that hole below the ear would match another, on the other side, to which the king’s armorer would have attached a chin strap.

At the lower edge of the helmet, you can see a whole line of holes.  If you wore a helmet so that there was nothing more than bare metal above your skull, it would not only be very hot in summer, which was the main campaigning season throughout the centuries, but a blow to the helmet would, potentially, drive the metal directly into the wearer’s head.  Those lower holes, then, are for a liner—of just the sort you see in this Great War helmet, like those on the British soldiers in the images above.

Besides the liner attached to the helmet itself, there was always the possibility of a liner attached to the wearer, called, in later times, an “arming cap”.  This was a padded cap which, when tied to the head, would provide some extra protection for the inside of the helmet in combat.  I’m not aware of any clear ancient images of one of these, but they do appear in medieval manuscript illustrations.  You can easily see one under this ancestor of the Model 1916 helmets which the British soldiers wear.  This earlier version is called a “kettle helm”.

(This is from the wonderful “Maciejowski Bible”, also called the “Morgan Bible”, c.1240ad—here’s a LINK to an article on its rather remarkable history:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morgan_Bible )

And here’s David beheading Goliath because, with his helmet off (you can just see it to the right), his arming cap alone will not protect him.

(from an English psalter—book of psalms—dating from somewhere between 1212 and 1220AD)

So, what lessons about not being hit on the head have we learned from all this?

1. always wear a helmet, but, unlike in film,

a helmet needs to be securely attached to the wearer—notice that none of these three has a chin strap

2. it is useful either to have a lining—no holes for a liner here

3. or at least an arming cap to protect the head within the helmet—Jaime just took his helmet off

Although I’ve used Game of Thrones for my examples, it’s only because I’m in the middle of rewatching the series.  The lack of the necessary internals for helmets goes back far beyond television or even film.  Here, for example, is Sir Pellias from a book which formed many readers’ views of medieval knights in the early 20th century, Howard Pyle’s The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903).

Although he’s dressed for battle or a tournament, notice the lack of an arming cap, just like Jaime Lanister.   What might happen to his head if someone used an axe on that helmet?

When you next watch an adventure film, filled with men (and hopefully some women, like Eowyn) in armor, ask yourself:  what’s under that helmet except hair and what’s keeping it in place?  Theoden, at least, can answer…

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Stay well,

Buckle up,

And know that, as always, there’s



The Ruin of Susan

Welcome, dear readers, as always.

I’ve just finished the Narnia books once more.  If you don’t know them, they are a series of 7 fantasy novels

written and published in the early 1950s by C.S. Lewis (1898-1963),

an Oxford and then Cambridge professor, who was a close friend for years of JRR Tolkien

and a member of the combination literary club and drinking society called “The Inklings”,

which met in various Oxford settings—college rooms and pubs like The Eagle and Child

in the 1930s and 1940s.

As a boy, Lewis and his brother had created an imaginary world, “Boxen”,

(This is a modern collection of the bits and pieces which the boys wrote—and illustrated.)

and, in later years, produced the lands of Narnia.

The books follow the adventures of a group of children—mostly related—and the group changes in time—as they are brought to Narnia to accomplish tasks set for them by a magical figure in the shape of a lion, called “Aslan” (which is Turkish for “lion”, as Lewis explained in a letter of 1952—C.S. Lewis Letters to Children, 29).                                               

(This is by Pauline Baynes, 1922-2008, whom Lewis asked to illustrate the first edition of the Narnia books after being impressed by her work for Tolkien.  Baynes also did the map of Narnia seen above.)

There are a number of films made from the books, a BBC series from 1988-1990, which included the first four books (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair)

and bigger commercial films of the first three, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005),

Prince Caspian (2008)

and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).

As these films have been made, they’ve gradually begun to split from the original books, and the older BBC versions tend to be closer to those originals, but I enjoy both—wonderful special effects in the newer films, but I feel that the characters are closer to the books in the older BBC adaptations—and the older series includes The Silver Chair.

One of the children in the first volume is Susan Pevensie,

as played by Sophie Cook, in the BBC version,

and by Anna Popplewell, in the later films.

And this time through the books I was really struck by Lewis’ gradual portrayal of Susan as a kind of moral failure, the cause of which Lewis explained in a letter to a child in 1955:

“Peter [the older boy in the first and second books] gets back to Narnia in it [“it” being the last book of the series, The Last Battle].  I am afraid that Susan does not.  Haven’t you noticed in the two you have read that she is rather fond of being too grownup.  I am sorry to say that side of her got stronger and she forgot about Narnia.” (C.S. Lewis Letters to Children, 51)

Susan’s slide begins in the second book, Prince Caspian, where she lies about not having seen Aslan when she has (Chapter 11, “The Lion Roars”), and the narrator of the third book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, further condemns her by saying, “Grown-ups had thought her the pretty one of the family and she was no good at school work (though otherwise very old for her age)…”

She makes no appearance in books 4-6 (The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, and The Magician’s Nephew), but her full condemnation occurs in the final book, The Last Battle.  Basically, the plot is about the final destruction of Narnia and the transfer, at the close of the book, of most of the major characters to a kind of paradise (actually perhaps a form of Heaven, as it’s revealed that several of those characters had been killed earlier in a railway accident without knowing it).  The last king of Narnia, Tirian, asks Peter, someone from our world who is one of the first characters to visit Narnia, and became a king there, “Has not Your Majesty two sisters?  Where is Queen Susan?”  The replies—from Susan’s fellow Narnia visitors–explain in detail Lewis’ earlier remark in his 1955 letter.

“ ‘My sister Susan,’ answered Peter shortly and gravely, ‘is no longer a friend of Narnia.’

‘Yes,’ said Eustace [a major character from books 3 and 4], ‘and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have!  Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’

‘Oh Susan!’ said Jill [one of the protagonists, along with Eustace, in book 4], ‘she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.  She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.’

‘Grown-up indeed!’ said the Lady Polly [a main character in book 6, The Magician’s Nephew].  ‘I wish she would grow up.  She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age.  Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.’ “ (The Last Battle, Chapter XII, “Through the Stable Door”)

It’s never said, but, because all of the other major figures are together in some sort of paradise, Lewis, as a Christian, is clearly implying that Susan, by her absence, has been denied redemption and therefore condemned to the opposite of heaven, which seems surprisingly hard-hearted of him, considering that her crimes seem to consist of “forgetting Narnia” and being “grown-up”.

Narnia, however, isn’t just the place, it’s its ruler, Aslan, and, by Aslan, as Lewis tells a child, “I meant the Lion of Judah” (C.S. Lewis Letters to Children, 29), that is, Jesus.  No Narnia, then, meant no Jesus, and no Jesus, to Lewis the Christian, meant no happy afterlife. 

For me, however, that other charge, of being what Susan believes is “grown-up”, is equally sad, as I find it linked to Lewis’ own view of maturity, as he outlines in his wonderful essay, “Three Ways of Writing for Children”.  (Here’s a LINK so that you may enjoy it, too:  https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=9117 )

In one part of the essay, Lewis addresses what would seem to be Susan’s “grown-up” view of her fellow Narnians’ desire to keep Narnia alive in their memories—and his own response to such behavior:

Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development: When I was ten I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

Thus, except for Susan, the others have shed this fear of being “childish”, as Lewis has in openly declaring his happy and unashamed adult consumption of fairy tales.  Lewis then goes on to define what he believes being grown-up means:

“2. The modern view seems to me to involve a false conception of growth. They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things? I now like hock, which I am sure I should not have liked as a child. But I still like lemon-squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched; where once I had one pleasure, I now have two. But if I had to lose the taste for lemon-squash before I acquired the taste for hock, that would not be growth but simple change. I now enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy tales and I call that growth: if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists, I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed. A tree grows because it adds rings: a train doesn’t grow by leaving one station behind and puffing on to the next. In reality, the case is stronger and more complicated than this. I think my growth is just as apparent when I now read the fairy tales as when I read the novelists, for I now enjoy the fairy tales better than I did in childhood: being now able to put more in, of course I get more out.”

(In case you’re not familiar with the terms, “hock” is a now rather old-fashioned word for German white wine and “lemon-squash” is, more or less, lemonade.)

Applying this to the other Narnians, we can understand that what Lewis implies is that:

1. Narnia = Aslan, and what Aslan stands for

2. by remembering Narnia, they remember Aslan

3. by including their experience of Narnia in their adult lives, they gain from the inclusivity which Lewis believes makes real “grown-ups”—and the easy entry into the paradise which appears near the end of The Last Battle

4. and, because Susan is unwilling or unable to do this, she must suffer the consequences.

I earlier wrote that, condemning Susan seems hard-hearted.  Lewis was a gentle and kind-hearted man, however, and, in another, later, letter, he offers one more thought about Susan:

“The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan.  She is left alive in this world at the end, having been turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman.  But there is plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end—in her own way.”  (C.S. Lewis Letters to Children, 67.)

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Stay well,

Add rings,

And know that there’s always




As always, dear readers, welcome.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about Gondor’s neighbors—not Mordor, with its hordes of orcs and even-more-unspeakable things, or heroic Rohan, but Harad, whose lands stretch far to the south, off the usual maps, and particularly about the city of Umbar.

Umbar is usually associated with its pirates, or corsairs, which I, in turn, always associate with the Barbary Pirates

(A romanticized view by the Danish artist, Niels Simonsen, 1807-1885.) 

who made the western Mediterranean (and beyond), a dangerous place for merchants and travelers alike from the Middle Ages into the 19th century.

(I got my first taste of them from a children’s book written by, of all people, the author of the Hornblower novels, C.S. Forester.)

I wondered, however:  pirates tend to be parasites, not builders–had Umbar always been a refuge for corsairs, a place whose harbor was always packed with their ships?

Emperor Charles V’s attempt to capture Algiers, home of the Barbary Pirates, 1541. Hand-colored woodcut reproduction of an earlier illustration

A little research was clearly in order.

If we were looking to find out more about a real pirate den, of which there are historical records, we would have libraries with shelves full of books written by numerous authors over several centuries.  Because this is an imaginary place, the creation of a single man, our sources are much more limited, however, and, as I began to try to provide myself—and you, dear readers—with more on Umbar, I found that I really had only three main ones:  the obvious The Lord of the Rings,

but then The Peoples of Middle-earth,

and what I’ve always seen as a kind of odd-book-out, The Silmarillion.

One of the most remarkable elements in Tolkien’s work is the depth of Middle-earth’s history, although often recorded only in the form of either annalistic or chronicalistic entries.  Derived from the Latin word annus, “year”, annals are lists of events, year after year, rather like a kind of basic timeline.   Chronicles, ultimately from the Greek word, chronos, “time”, may be seen as a kind of more developed annal, in which the events can be described in greater detail. 

I find these definitions a bit fuzzy, and JRRT himself uses the word “annals” in the title of Section A of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, “Annals of the Kings and Rulers”, although there is so much description that “Chronicles” might be more appropriate.  Annals or Chronicles, the first entry for Umbar appears in Appendix B, “The Tale of Years” under The Second Age:

“[SA]2280 Umbar is made into a great fortress of Numenor”

It is clear, however, from a reference in Appendix F, I, “The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age”, that Umbar is, in fact, older than this fortifying:

(about place names) “A few were of forgotten origin, and descended doubtless from the days before the ships of the Numenoreans sailed the Sea; among these were Umbar, Arnach, and Erech…”

After this reference, things become a little hazy.  Sauron, who always seems to be lurking nearby, was aware that things were not well in Numenor.  Ar-Pharazon had forcibly married his first cousin and taken the throne, so:

“Now Sauron knowing of the dissension in Numenor thought how he might use it to achieve his revenge.  He began therefore to assail the havens and forts of the Numenoreans, and invaded the coast-lands under their dominion.” (The Peoples of Middle-earth, “The Tale of Years of the Second Age”)

Ar-Pharazon, in response:

“…prepared, and at last he himself set sail with a great navy and armament, the greatest that had yet appeared in the world.”

This was not what Sauron had expected:

“And Ar-Pharazon landed at Umbar, and so great was the splendour and might of the Numenoreans at the noon of their glory that at the rumour of them alone all men flocked to their summons and did obeisance; and Sauron’s own servants fled away.”

Slippery as ever, Sauron thinks that, if he can’t obtain what he wants by force, he can do it by trickery, and surrenders to Ar-Pharazon in SA3262. (“The Tale of Years”, The Second Age)

Things go out of focus again for a while as Numenor collapses, but it appears that a kind of subset of the Numenoreans, the Black Numenoreans, continued to hold the city, perhaps with the aid of the local people, the Haradrim.  (For an extended version of how Sauron ruins Numenor from within, see the “Akallabeth” in The Silmarillion.)

Things become clear again early in the Third Age, when the Gondorian king Earnil I, led an expedition to retake Umbar in TA933 (Appendix B, The Third Age).  Having done so, he and much of his fleet were then lost in a storm off the coast (Appendix A, “Gondor and the Heirs of Anarion”), but worse was to come as:

“…the Men of the Harad, led by the lords that had been driven from Umbar, came up with great power against that stronghold, and Ciryandil [Earnil’s son] fell in battle in Haradwaith.”

The subsequent siege of Umbar lasted for 35 years (“The Tale of Years”, The Third Age:  “1015 King Ciryandil slain in the siege of Umbar”; “1050 Hyarmendacil conquers the Harad”), but:

“could not be taken because of the sea-power of Gondor.” 

In TA1050, Ciryaher, Ciryandil’s son:

“…came down from the north by sea and by land, and crossing the River Harnen his armies utterly defeated the Men of the Harad, and their kings were compelled to acknowledge the overlordship of Gondor.” 

From that time, Umbar was part of Gondor, but, as history in Middle-earth so often seems to have a roller coaster effect,

in TA1432, there begins the civil war called “the Kin-strife”, which continues to TA1448, the losers

“…sailed away, and established themselves at Umbar.  There they made a refuge for all of the enemies of the king, and a lordship independent of his crown.  Umbar remained at war with Gondor for many lives of men, a threat to its coastlands and to all traffic on the sea.  It was never again completely subdued until the days of Elessar; and the region of South Gondor became a debatable land between the Corsairs and the Kings.”

And this answers my question:  the Corsairs of Umbar postdated the fortification, if not the founding, of Umbar by 2609 years.

As I was working on this, I found, as I often do, a suggestion of something which might have influenced JRRT.  Before he was drawn away by Germanic, Celtic, and Finno-Ugric, Tolkien had begun his academic life as a classicist, and those words referring to the 35-year siege of Umbar, that the city “could not be taken because of the sea-power of Gondor” immediately brought back another city and another long siege.

After the defeat of the invading Persians at the battle of Plataea, in 479BC,

some of the victorious Greek cities, including Athens, wanted to continue the war by carrying it to the Persian-occupied Greek colonies of Asia Minor.  These cities formed a collective called the “Delian League”, from its headquarters on the island of Delos.  After some initial success, the League gradually seemed to lose its purpose and soon the leading state, Athens, had taken over the League, gradually turning it into the Athenian Empire.

There were some cities, however, which became increasingly anxious about Athens’ growing power, the leader among them being Sparta, a military state in southern Greece.  In time, this would lead to a long war, the so-called “Peloponnesian War”, 431-404BC, (named for the southern part of Greece, where some of the fighting took place), Sparta and its allies on one side, Athens and its empire on the other.

In this war, the two sides were both powerful, but their power lay in different directions:  the Spartans were heavy infantry, drilled intensively to fight in a massed formation called a phalanx.

The Athenians, as a nation of merchant/seafarers, were a naval power, possessing a large professional fleet of warships called triremes (meaning having three banks of oars).

As well, although Athens, unlike Umbar, was not situated directly at its port, it had constructed solid fortifications which joined the city with its not one, but three ports.

Each year, in the early years of the long war, the Spartans would send an army to the countryside outside Athens, block entry to the city, and destroy farmlands.  To any other place, this might have been fatal, but Athens, like Umbar, “could not be taken because of the sea-power”, so, as long as that sea-power had no rival, then Sparta, like the Haradrim, could march outside Athens’ walls every summer, yet neither deter the defenders nor penetrate the walls.                            

Gondorian Umbar survived its 35-year siege, being rescued by a king and his armies.  Athens was not so fortunate.  Sparta gave in to Persian influence and Persian money, and built a fleet which destroyed the Athenian fleet at the battle of Aegospotami, in 405BC. 

The next year, Athens, no longer able to guarantee supply by sea with its naval power so reduced, surrendered and, as a token of that surrender, was forced to knock holes in her long walls.  She was allowed to survive, but never owned an empire again.

Stay well,

Lay in plenty of provisions (and arrows),

And remember that, as ever, there’s