Name-changer, But Not Game-changer

As ever, welcome, dear readers.

The Odyssey is full of omens, usually involving birds and one of them a raptor,

(eagle, symbol of Zeus)

(hawk, symbol of Apollo)

the other a victim, usually domestic.

Each time that combination appears, it’s interpreted as meaning that Odysseus is on the way home and bringing vengeance, which, of course, eventually, he does.

In these cases, the future is being graphically—if symbolically—offered.  On one occasion, however, Odysseus seeks out information about the future by visiting the Otherworld and hearing the words of the seer Tireisias.

And this visit symbolizes for me something which was a standard practice in the Classical world:  the pilgrimage to what was believed to be a sacred spot to learn something of what was to come.  Odysseus, in the Odyssey, lying about himself and his arrival on Ithaka, even mentions that he has gone to such a spot—Dodona, where he would have been to the little sanctuary where an oak grove grew.

(eventually whittled down to one tree)

This was an ancient site, frequented as early as the 14th century BC, but which came to a sad end at the end of the 4th century AD, when it has been traditionally said to have been closed by the order of the emperor Theodosius (347-395AD),

along with religious sites all over the Greco-Roman world.  (In recent years, this view of Theodosius and his actions towards paganism have been contested, both by historians and archaeologists.  If this interests you, there are a couple of useful WIKI articles here: ; )

The main reason for closing such places as Dodona and the more prominent Delphi, shrine of Apollo,

whenever it happened and by the order of whom, was to remove competition from what was, increasingly, a Christian empire, but another, lesser reason, I suspect, was that the future was believed to be a closed book, its events known only to the incoming deity, and attempts to find such events out were to be considered blasphemous, at best. 

Certainly the most famous Judeo-Christian attempt, that of King Saul of Israel, who tricks the Witch of Endor (even after Saul had exiled wizards and “those that had familiar spirits” from Israel) into bringing up the spirit of the prophet Samuel, ends very badly, with Saul being told by Samuel that his army will be defeated and that he himself will be dead (he kills himself after the defeat—see 1 Samuel, Chapters 28, Verses 7-20 here: )

This attempting to learn the future from the dead came to be called necromancy, from a combination of two Greek words, nekros, “corpse” and manteia, “the art of prophecy” and therefore its practitioners were necromancers (in the Middle Ages this necro- root became confused with Latin nigro-, “black”, creating nigromancy, “prophesying from dark things”, which, considering what happened to Saul, is not surprising).

Necromancer brings us to The Hobbit, which I’m about to teach again this spring. 

Gandalf is initially very vague about leaving the dwarves and Bilbo, finally saying only “I have, as I told you, some pressing business away south…”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 7, “Queer Lodgings”).  In fact, it’s only by accident that Bilbo ever finds out what this business was:

“…but every now and again he would open one eye, and listen, when a part of the story which he did not yet know came in.

It was in this way that he learned where Gandalf had been to; for he overheard the words of the wizard to Elrond.  It appeared that Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and good magic; and that they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the south of Mirkwood.”  (Chapter 19, “The Last Stage”)

As he himself confessed, JRRT was at first unclear as to the identity of this figure, as he wrote to W.H. Auden, explaining the genesis of The Lord of the Rings:

“That of course does not mean that the main idea of the story was a war-product.  That was arrived at in one of the earliest chapters still surviving (Book I, 2).  It is really given, and present in the germ, from the beginning, though I had no conscious notion of what the Necromancer stood for (except ever-recurrent evil) in The Hobbit, nor of his connexion with the Ring.” (letter to W.H. Auden, 7 June, 1955, Letters, 216)

It was quickly clear, however, that readers were intrigued by the mention of such a figure.  As early as October, 1937, not a month after the date of the original publication of The Hobbit, Tolkien can write to Stanley Unwin:  “One reader wants fuller details about Gandalf and the Necromancer.”  (letter to Stanley Unwin, 15 October, 1937, Letters, 24)  And, in 1939, he is still commenting about “the readers young and old who clamoured for ‘more about the Necromancer’” (letter to C.A. Furth, 2 February, 1939, Letters, 42)

Although much about who this character might turn out to be may have been vague to JRRT in 1937, it’s also clear that he early made a connection between him and Sauron, as he says in this letter to Stanley Unwin:

“Mr. Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s [sic] fairy-tale dwarves, got drawn into the edge of it—so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge.”  (letter to Stanley Unwin, 16 December, 1937, Letters, 26)

But this still leaves us with a bit of a puzzle:  if a necromancer is one who obtains knowledge of the future from the dead, when do we ever find out that Sauron does this?  The simple answer is that we don’t—but, this earlier incarnation (his last, in fact, once he loses the power of the Ring), is not his first. 

The long structure and chronology of his creation is far beyond the scope of this posting, but, working backwards from what Christopher Tolkien called “The Second Version of The Fall of Numenor” (I’m guessing post-1936—see CT’s introduction, “The Early History of the Legend” in The Lost Road and Other Writings, 7-10), we find this passage, where refugees from the ruined Numenor have migrated to Beleriand (“…that land in the West of the North of the Old World, where Morgoth had been overthrown…” 31):

“And they came at last even to Mordor the Black Country, where Sauron, that is in the Gnomish tongue named Thu, had rebuilt his fortresses.” (31)

Now, taking that name “Thu”, we can move back to 1928, when Tolkien was working on a long poem, “The Lay of Leithian” (to be found in The Lays of Beleriand, 183-392).  In Canto VII, we find this stanza:

“Men called him Thu, and as a god

In after days beneath his rod

Bewildered bowed to him, and made

His ghastly temples in the shade.

Not yet by men enthralled adored,

Now was he Morgoth’s mightiest lord,

Master of Wolves, whose shivering howl

Forever echoed in the hills, and foul

Enchantments and dark sigaldry

Did weave and wield.  In glamoury

That necromancer held his hosts

Of phantoms and of wandering ghosts,

Of misbegotten or spell-wronged

Monsters that about him thronged,

Working his bidding dark and vile:

The werewolves of the Wizard’s Isle.” (Canto VII, lines 2064-2079)

As Christopher Tolkien comments in his notes to this canto, Tolkien kept shifting the name of Thu, replacing it with “Gorthu”, but also with “Sauron”, suggesting that, even 8 years before the appearance of the name in the second draft of The Fall of Numenor, he had the name available as a substitute for Thu.  (278)  And here we see not only the name, but that word, “necromancer” (line 2074). 

Sauron in The Lord of the Rings is frighteningly powerful, but one power he doesn’t seem to employ is the ability to raise the dead to learn the future from them.  Could it be, however, that, in 1937, although Sauron can call upon no ghosts, the ghost of an earlier power haunted his creator, even as his creation’s name remained the same?

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Stay well,

Avoid those with unstable nomenclatures,

And, as ever, remember that there’s




I’ve been thinking about the rhythm and rhyme scheme of this “Lay” and I wonder if JRRT had been required to memorize S.T. Coleridge’s (1772-1834) “Christabel” at an earlier time in his life?  Take for example, this stanza—although you’d have to add the next to get one of Tolkien’s length:

“The lovely lady, Christabel,

Whom her father loves so well,

What makes her in the wood so late,

A furlong from the castle gate?

She had dreams all yesternight

Of her own betrothèd knight;

And she in the midnight wood will pray

For the weal of her lover that’s far away.”

(In that same letter to Auden, mentioned above, JRRT claimed that he hadn’t learned English literature at

school, but this was such a well-known poem by the time of his childhood and memorizing poetry for

public performance was so common—you can see the ghost of it when Sam produces his “party piece” on

the Oliphaunt—that I would suggest that Coleridge might have been an unconscious influence.)

Remembering the North

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

Tolkien was clearly very annoyed at a certain dictator in June, 1941.  As he wrote to his son, Michael, currently a cadet at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst:

“I have spent most of my life, since I was your age, studying Germanic matters (in the general sense that includes England and Scandinavia).  There is a great deal more force (and truth) than ignorant people imagine in the ‘Germanic’ ideal.  I was much attracted by it as a undergraduate…in reaction against the ‘Classics’…I suppose I know better than most what is the truth about this ‘Nordic’ nonsense.  Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22:  against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler…Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.” (letter to Michael Tolkien, 9 June, 1941, Letters, 55-56)

As others have commented, much of this “northern spirit” came to Tolkien from the work of a writer of the previous generation, William Morris (1834-1896),

a creative whirlwind of a man, who did everything from designing wallpaper to being an active advocate for socialism to creating a number of long works in poetry and prose which encompassed much of the West’s older tale-telling tradition, including the voyage of Jason for the Golden Fleece (1867),

Beowulf (1895),

and part of the Arthurian tradition in the early The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems (1858),

my personal favorite, with a tricky, defiant queen so different from the mournful figure of Tennyson’s (1809-1892) poem, published in the first version of his Idylls of the King (1858).

(If you’d like to read how Morris saw Guenevere, here’s a LINK: This is from the wonderful University of Rochester (US) Camelot Project.  If you’re interested in any aspect of King Arthur, and don’t know this site, you should: )

According to Carpenter’s biography, Tolkien first came to know Morris’ works as an Oxford undergraduate, having spent money from an English prize on books, including Morris’ The Life and Death of Jason, The House of the Wolfings, and his translation of the Voelsungasaga (Carpenter, 77-78).  This clearly inspired JRRT, as he was soon at work on a sort of imitation-Morris, as he wrote to his fiancée, Edith:

“Amongst other work I am trying to turn one of the stories [from another favorite work, Elias Loennrot’s compilation of Finnish folk material, Kalevala]—which is really a very great story and most tragic—into a short story somewhat on the lines of Morris’ romances with chunks of poetry in between…”  (letter to Edith Bratt, October, 1914, Letters, 7)

And the influence of Morris will turn up again, even as late as The Lord of the Rings.  In a 1960 letter to Professor L.W. Foster, Tolkien says:

“The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.  They owe more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains.”  (letter to L.W. Foster, 31 December, 1960, Letters, 303)

Morris had himself come to that same northern spirit via the literature of Old Norse, which he acquired originally through translations like George W. Dasent’s (1817-1896)  Popular Tales from the Norse (1859—a translation of the first great collection of Norwegian folktales, Asbjornsen and Moe’s Norske Folkeeventyr) and his 1861 translation of “The Story of Burnt Njal”.  (You can read the 1888 edition of Popular Tales here:  and the original 1861 Burnt Njal—in 2 volumes—here ; )  In 1868, he began a regular study of the modern form of Old Norse, Icelandic, with Eirikur Magnusson (1833-1913),

himself from Iceland and a translator of its literature.  With Magnusson’s tutoring, Morris began producing his own English versions of Icelandic texts, their first collaboration being The Story of Grettir the Strong, 1869, which you can read here:

By 1871, Morris was on his way to Iceland.

In fact, Morris visited Iceland twice, keeping journals of both trips, which you can read here: His initial visit was so striking that he set down his first impressions in verse—here’s the opening stanza–

“Iceland First Seen

Lo from our loitering ship a new land at last to be seen;
Toothed rocks down the side of the firth on the east guard a weary wide lea,
And black slope the hill-sides above, striped adown with their desolate green:
And a peak rises up on the west from the meeting of cloud and of sea,
Foursquare from base unto point like the building of Gods that have been, 5
The last of that waste of the mountains all cloud-wreathed and snow-flecked and grey,
And bright with the dawn that began just now at the ending of day.”  (published in Poems by the Way, 1891—you can read the whole poem here: on pages 125-126.  This and the previous volume are from the posthumously published collected works, with introductions to the volumes by Morris’ daughter, May (1862-1938), a talented and engaging writer in her own right, as well as a great craftswoman.

You can find the whole set at:  )

Morris’ mode of travel while in Iceland was on the back of one of the sturdy little Icelandic horses—

(This is a joking caricature by Morris’ one-time friend, D.G. Rossetti, 1828-1882—not a portrait from the life, as it’s dated “1870”—before Morris’ trip—but perhaps a foreshadowing?)

He hoped to bring one home with him, but his first choice, “Falki” went lame and so his second choice, whom he named “Mouse”, returned to England with Morris and spent many years living with the family.  There’s a lovely description of him in May’s introduction to her father’s Iceland journals, pages xxviii-xxix. 

And Mouse is the real reason for this posting.  New books sometimes seem to fall out of the air as, about two weeks ago, this one did—

Although its title is All the Horses of Iceland, almost none of it takes place there, in fact, but the hero, Eyvind, a medieval Icelandic trader, brings back a spirit horse from his travels across Central Asia and—but I’m not one for spoilers, as I hate them myself.  This is a quiet little book (just over 100 pages), but thoughtful and beautifully written and I’ve already bought two other books by the author, Sarah Tolmie,

because I enjoyed the first so much. 

But what about Tolkien and that “northern spirit”?  Well, here’s a last quotation and the writing of it must have given JRRT great satisfaction:

“I am very pleased to know that an Icelandic translation of The Hobbit is in preparation.  I had long hoped that some of my work might be translated into Icelandic, a language which I think would fit it better than any other I have any adequate knowedge of.”  (letter to the wonderfully-named Ungfru Adalsteinsdottir, 5 June, 1973, Letters, 430)

Thanks, as ever, for reading,

Stay well,

Stay spirited (but not haunted),

And remember that there’s always




J.W. Mackail (1859-1945) was Morris’ first biographer and, in my opinion, even after over a century of Morris scholarship, still illuminating and a pleasure to read.  The two volumes of his biography are available for you here: ; )

On the Other Foot…

Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

In my last, I was concerned about the hairy feet of hobbits

as described both in The Hobbit

“They…wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly)…”  The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)

and The Lord of the Rings

“…but they seldom wore shoes, since their feet had tough leather soles and were clad in a thick, curling hair, much like the hair on their heads, which was commonly brown…”   (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue 1 “Concerning Hobbits”)

As, as far as I can currently determine, Tolkien never explained why he chose to give characters he saw as human—

“The Hobbits are, of course, really meant to be a branch of the specifically human race (not Elves or Dwarves)—hence the two kinds can dwell together (as at Bree), and are called just the Big Folk and the Little Folk.” (to Milton Waldman, “…not dated, but was probably written late in 1951”, Letters, 158)

appendages more fitting for werewolves,

all we can really do is theorize, as I did, but thinking of weird feet made me think about creatures from the work of JRRT’s long-time friend and friendly critic, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963),

the “Dufflepuds”,

(by the original illustrator, Pauline Baynes)

to be found in Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952).

They are probably my favorite characters in the novel, depicted as a kind of rustic committee, speaking something which would sounds like what in Britain is called “Mummershire”, based upon West Country dialects.  (Here’s a short useful video so that you can hear what I mean—it’s what Sam in the Jackson movies has been coached to imitate: )

They first appear (although that’s not quite accurate as, initially, they’re invisible) after a number of the crew, including the junior member of the Pevensie family, Lucy, have come ashore on an unknown island–

“Almost as soon as they entered this path Lucy noticed that she had a little stone in her shoe. In that unknown place it might have been wiser for her to ask the others to wait while she took it out. But she didn’t; she just dropped quietly behind and sat down to take off her shoe. Her lace had got into a knot.

Before she had undone the knot the others were a fair distance ahead. By the time she had got the stone out and was putting the shoe on again she could no longer hear them. But almost at once she heard something else. It was not coming from the direction of the house.

What she heard was a thumping. It sounded as if dozens of strong workmen were hitting the ground as hard as they could with great wooden mallets.

And it was very quickly coming nearer. She was already sitting with her back to a tree, and as the tree was not one she could climb, there was really nothing to do but to sit dead still and press herself against the tree and hope she wouldn’t be seen.

Thump, thump, thump … and whatever it was must be very close now for she could feel the ground shaking. But she could see nothing. She thought the thing—or things—must be just behind her. But then there came a thump on the path right in front of her. She knew it was on the path not only by the sound but because she saw the sand scatter as if it had been struck a heavy blow. But she could see nothing that had struck it. Then all the thumping noises drew together about twenty feet away from her and suddenly ceased. Then came the Voice.

It was really very dreadful because she could still see nobody at all. The whole of that park-like country still looked as quiet and empty as it had looked when they first landed. Nevertheless, only a few feet away from her, a voice spoke. And what it said was:

‘Mates, now’s our chance.’

Instantly a whole chorus of other voices replied, ‘Hear him. Hear him. Now’s our chance, he said. Well done, Chief. You never said a truer word.’

‘What I say,’ continued the first voice, ‘is, get down to the shore between them and their boat, and let every mother’s son look to his weapons. Catch ’em when they try to put to sea.’

‘Eh, that’s the way,’ shouted all the other voices. ‘You never made a better plan, Chief. Keep it up, Chief. You couldn’t have a better plan than that.’

‘Lively, then, mates, lively,’ said the first voice. ‘Off we go.’

‘Right again, Chief,’ said the others. ‘Couldn’t have a better order. Just what we were going to say ourselves. Off we go.’

Immediately the thumping began again—very loud at first but soon fainter and fainter, till it died out in the direction of the sea.”  (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter IX, “The Island of Voices”)

What in the world are these things and where is that thumping coming from?

 It seems that these are the subjects of a rather philosophical wizard, whom he has enchanted into their present form to teach them to appreciate themselves and who, in ignorant rebellion, have used one of his spells to make themselves invisible.  Lucy is recruited to reverse the spell, and, when she has done so–

“The things she pointed at were dotted all over the level grass. They were certainly very like mushrooms, but far too big—the stalks about three feet high and the umbrellas about the same length from edge to edge. When she looked carefully she noticed too that the stalks joined the umbrellas not in the middle but at one side which gave an unbalanced look to them. And there was something—a sort of little bundle—lying on the grass at the foot of each stalk. In fact the longer she gazed at them the less like mushrooms they appeared. The umbrella part was not really round as she had thought at first. It was longer than it was broad, and it widened at one end. There were a great many of them, fifty or more.

The clock struck three.

Instantly a most extraordinary thing happened. Each of the “mushrooms” suddenly turned upside-down. The little bundles which had lain at the bottom of the stalks were heads and bodies. The stalks themselves were legs. But not two legs to each body. Each body had a single thick leg right under it (not to one side like the leg of a one-legged man) and at the end of it, a single enormous foot—a broad-toed foot with the toes curling up a little so that it looked rather like a small canoe. She saw in a moment why they had looked like mushrooms. They had been lying flat on their backs each with its single leg straight up in the air and its enormous foot spread out above it. She learned afterwards that this was their ordinary way of resting; for the foot kept off both rain and sun and for a Monopod to lie under its own foot is almost as good as being in a tent.” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter XI, “The Dufflepuds Made Happy”)

Lewis was a medievalist, with a strong grounding in Classical Studies, and a very well-read man, and, like classical and medieval authors, he was perfectly willing to borrow from older sources to tell his story.  The most distant ancestor of the Dufflepuds would seem to be a reference—just a passing one—in Aristophanes’ comedy of 414BC, Birds, where the Chorus sings:

“Near the land of the Skiapodes

There is a marsh…”  (Birds, 1553, my translation)

Skiapodes is a compound, from skia, “shadow/shade” and pous, “foot”(in the plural, podes, “feet”), and here we see that ancestral form of the umbrella-like appendage of the Dufflepuds.  From there, we can  trace the idea to the Natural History of Pliny the Elder (23-79AD), who writes of a certain tribe in India:

“…idem hominum genus, qui monocoli vocarentur, singulis cruribus, mirae pernicitatis ad saltum; eosdem sciapodas vocari, quod in maiore aestu humi iacentes resupini umbra se pedum protegant.” 

“Likewise there is a race of men who are called “Onelegged”, with a single leg, with a leap of wonderful agility/speed.  These same people are to be called “Shade/shadowfeet” because in rather great heat, lying on their backs on the ground, they cover/protect themselves with the shadow/shade of [their] feet.”  (Naturalis Historia, Book VII, Chapter 2—my translation)

This interesting description is, in fact, older than Pliny’s work (which was nearly completed in 77AD, but left unfinished at its author’s death in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79), being based, as Pliny tells us, on the text of Indica, by the Ionian Greek physician, Ctesias, who lived and wrote in the early 4th century BC, thus making him a rough contemporary of Aristophanes (c.446-c.386BC).

Lewis could have read Pliny, but not Ctesias, of which only a summary survives in the 9th century anthologizer, Photius (c.810-893AD), and which doesn’t mention the Skiapodes, or he could have found a reference in a number of other, later sources, including everything from Augustine’s (354-430AD) Civitas Dei, Book XVI, Chapter 8, where Augustine appears to be using Pliny’s material but adds an extra detail—the Skiapodes’ leg doesn’t appear to bend at the knee (“…nec poplitem flectunt”…)–to the Etymologiae of Isadore of Seville (c.560-636AD) which, in Book XI, Chapter 3, Section 23, more or less simply echoes Pliny (although he emphasizes that the shade is provided because of the size of the Skiapodes’ feet (“pedem suorum magnitudine adumbrentur”).

And then there are the visual sources, from the Hereford Mappa Mundi of about 1300AD,

where you can spot this

at the top, just left of center,

(and if you want to know more about this marvelous chart, see this—old, but still interesting: )

to the remarkable Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493.

(If you don’t know this work, see this intro: )

In the previous posting, I expressed my puzzlement at Tolkien’s creation of those hairy, horny feet, where they came from (other than from George Macdonald’s goblins), and what they were doing in his work.  For Lewis’ work, certainly we can see sources and, judging by their behavior, I can see that the Dufflepuds have at least two potential functions:

1. they suggest the foolishness of vanity (not only are they currently odd-looking, but they had earlier decided that they had once been handsome, and, changed by the wizard, they claimed to be so ashamed of their looks that they sought invisibility—only to want visibility back, once they’d felt the opposite).

2. they are there to lighten the mood—the Dawn Treader had just been attacked by a sea monster, which had strained and shaken all of the characters, and so this dim, countrified committee with its pretensions to good looks could provide a comedy which is certainly a form of relief before the story turns once more to the serious in the next chapter, “The Dark Island”.

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Stay well,

Beware of loud thumps behind you,

And know that, as always, there’s




 If you are a reader who lives in Canada, where copyright laws differ from those in the US, you can find a copy of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader for free  at:  Unfortunately, for copyright reasons, Pauline Baynes’ illustrations are not included.  You can also see the 1989 BBC version of this part of the novel at: )


Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

In the 1982 film E.T.,


a little girl, who is the younger sister of the hero, looks down the extraterrestrial and announces, “I don’t like his feet.”

I never had that particular reaction to E.T.’s anatomy and I admit that I haven’t canvassed a lot of other Tolkien readers about this, but I’ve never been happy with what is at the end of hobbits’ legs either.

We first read about them in Chapter One of The Hobbit:

“They…wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly)…”  The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)

And I suppose that, for consistency’s sake, this detail is included in the subsequent The Lord of the Rings:

“…but they seldom wore shoes, since their feet had tough leather soles and were clad in a thick, curling hair, much like the hair on their heads, which was commonly brown…”   (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue 1 “Concerning Hobbits”)

But, once this has been revealed, I don’t have the sense that anything more is made of it in either work.

I haven’t combed the text (sorry), of The Hobbit, but, glancing through it and consulting my memory (in the last few years, I’ve taught it half-a-dozen times), I don’t have the impression that the subject of hirsute extremities is brought up again.  As for The Lord of the Rings, when the Fellowship begins its journey and runs into a snowstorm, at the moment when such equipment might be mentioned, it isn’t.  Although Gandalf hopes for warmer feet (“For myself I should like a pipe to smoke in comfort, and warmer feet.”  The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Ring Goes South”), the mentions of hobbit feet are:

1. Frodo’s feet “felt like lead” before

2.  “He thought a fire was heating his toes…”

3. (Legolas scouting ahead reports about the snow) “..while further down it is no more than a coverlet to cool a hobbit’s toes.”

Even when crossing stony ground and then almost lost in a blizzard, neither the advantage of the thick hair nor the leathery soles is brought up.

So why are we told about their feet?

As far as I can tell, JRRT himself never explains, but I wonder about his own earlier associations with lower extremities. 

We might begin with something which may seem obvious, his poem, “Goblin Feet”, first published in Oxford Poetry 1915–

(the cut-and-paste has evened out the lines—for the original see:  page 64)–


I AM off down the road
Where the fairy lanterns glowed
And the little pretty flittermice are flying :
A slender band of grey
It runs creepily away
And the hedges and the grasses are a-sighing.
The air is full of wings,
And of blundering beetle- things
That warn you with their whirring and their humming.
O ! I hear the tiny horns
Of enchanted leprechauns
And the padding feet of many gnomes a-coming !

O ! the lights : O ! the gleams : O ! the little tinkly sound
O ! the rustle of their noiseless little robes :
O ! the echo of their feet—of their little happy feet :
O ! their swinging lamps in little starlit globes.

I must follow in their train
Down the crooked fairy lane
Where the coney-rabbits long ago have gone,
And where silverly they sing
In a moving moonlit ring
All a-twinkle with the jewels they have on.
They are fading round the turn
Where the glow-worms palely burn
And the echo of their padding feet is dying !
O ! it’s knocking at my heart–
Let me go ! O ! let me start !
For the little magic hours are all a-flying.

O ! the warmth ! O! the hum ! O ! the colours in the dark !
O ! the gauzy wings of golden honey-flies !
O ! the music of their feet—of their dancing goblin feet !
O ! the magic ! O !  the sorrow when it dies.”

(In 1920, the poem was first republished in A Book of Fairy Poetry, where we see the first illustration of Tolkien’s work—

and, if you’d like to see it in situ, here’s the volume:   page177 )

Here there is no mention of shoes or boots, reminding us of Tolkien’s remark about the hobbits:

“Thus, the only craft not practiced among them was shoe-making.” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue I “Concerning Hobbits”

and their tread is “padding”, suggesting a softness which would not be provided by footwear.   This, in turn, takes us back to an early Tolkien favorite author, George Macdonald (1824-1905—see Carpenter, Tolkien,  24, for his early enthusiasm),

and his two goblin books, The Princess and the Goblin (1872)

and The Princess and Curdie (1883).

(And here they are, if you haven’t read them:  )

In The Princess and the Goblin, we are told about these goblin feet (a father and son goblin are overheard talking):

“ ‘But I could carry ten times as much if it wasn’t for my feet.’

‘That is your weakpoint, I confess, my boy.’

‘Ain’t it yours too, father?’

‘Well, to be honest, it is a goblin-weakness.  Why they come so soft, I declare I haven’t an idea.’ “

(It’s later explained that humans must wear shoes because they’re ashamed of having toes.)

(The Princess and the Goblin, Chapter VIII, “The Goblins”—one of my favorite other facts about the goblins is that you can drive them off by reciting verse, which they can’t stand.)

In a letter to Naomi Mitchison from 1954, Tolkien admits that Macdonald’s work might provide a source for orcs:

“…but I owe, I suppose, a good deal to the goblin tradition…especially as it appears in George MacDonald…”

but then he continues:

“except for the soft feet which I never believed in.”  (letter of 25 April, 1954, to Naomi Mitchison, Letters, 178)

So, in the matter of feet, Tolkien was influenced by goblins, but, as those feet’s vulnerability was not believable, perhaps we could imagine that he made hobbit feet tougher so that he could believe in them?

But as to why they’re hairy…

Thanks for reading, as ever,

Stay well,

Avoid anything described as “footling”,

And remember that, as always, there’s



On the March

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

I’m always interested in Tolkien’s sources, as much for the fun of looking for them and learning new things as I go as for actually locating definite—or at least possible—ones.  The following is from one of my latest forays.

September, 9AD:  things were going very badly for Publius Quinctilius Varus (46BC-9AD), governor of the new Roman province of Germania.  Trusting an officer of Germanic auxiliary cavalry, Arminius (19/18BC-21AD), who had grown up in Rome as a hostage, and seemed more Roman than the Romans, Varus had marched three of his legions into the depths of the German forests

and into a nightmarish series of ambushes

(by Peter Dennis)

in which he had seen as many as 20,000 soldiers and civilians killed before Varus himself committed suicide, probably convinced that, if taken prisoner, he would have met a much slower and more painful end.

Although the Romans, over the next years, had mounted a number of punitive campaigns into Germania, ultimately, it was decided that the region was best left to itself, but, to try to keep an eye on the tribes and to prevent possible raids, if not outright invasions, the Roman government established what was called the Limes Germanicus, the “German boundary”.

This wasn’t just a striped road barrier and a customs station,

but hundreds of miles of ditch with a palisade and earth wall behind it,

watch towers with beacons ready to be lit,

and Roman military camps behind it.

And this became a pattern for Roman conquest.  In Britain, troubled by Pictish tribes to the north, the army set up two walls,

one, the so-called “Antonine Wall”, in Scotland, subsequently abandoned,

which was constructed much like the Limes,

and then the so-called “Hadrian’s Wall”,

more substantially built, to the south, with towers,

“mile castles” at intervals,

and extensive camps, just like the Limes.

Later post-Roman Britain saw other attempts to indicate boundaries, like Offa’s Dyke,

which may have originally resembled a rather rudimentary version of the Limes and which (roughly) marked the separation of England from Wales.

The Carolingian emperor, Charlemagne,

developed this boundary idea farther, establishing a whole series of what were called markas (marcae),which, in English, we called “marches”, and which

colonized, but also militarized, regions along his empire’s borders (when you read “Denmark”, for example, you can think that this was one such zone—the “border region with the Danes”).

As the Normans and their heirs spread westward across Britain and began the conquest of Wales, certain lords—who came to be called “marcher lords”–controlled similar areas throughout the early Middle Ages,

and the troubled border between Scotland and England was, on both sides, divided into East, Middle, and West Marches,

each March supervised by a  Warden.  This is an area particularly full of romance/adventure for me, not only for its spare landscape, with its fortified houses, called “bastles”,

and scattered castles, like Hermitage,

 its Reivers—raiders who lived on the edge, both of the Border and of the law–

(Angus McBride)

and the bold men who enforced the law—or tried to.

(another McBride—this is the “hot trod”, where the Warden summoned all those to help him in pursuit of raiders by raising a burning turf on a spear)

Many of the ballads collected from this region are stories about these people, like that of the rescue of Kinmont Willie from Carlisle castle.

(a third McBride)

(If you’d like to know more, I recommend George Macdonald Fraser’s The Steel Bonnets, as a beginning.)

This brings us to the “Riddermark”, that is, Rohan.

It seems pretty clear,, where Tolkien, first as a classicist, then as a medievalist, got the concept and thus the term from.

After Eorl the Young,

(I’ve always liked this image, which suggests the tapestry identified by Aragorn in Edoras:  “ ‘Behold Eorl the Young!…Thus he rode out of the North to the Battle of the Field of Celebrant.’ “  The  Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 6, “The King of the Golden Hall” )

had led his men in helping the Gondorians  to deal with “a great host of wild men from the North-east”, Cirion, the Steward of Gondor:

“…in reward for his aid, gave Calendardhon between Anduin and Isen to Eorl and his people; and they sent north for their wives and children and their goods and settled in that land.  They named it anew the Mark of the Riders [Riddermark}…but in Gondor their land was called Rohan, and its people the Rohirrim…There the Rohirrim lived afterwards as free men under their own kings and laws, but in perpetual alliance with Gondor.”  (The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, II, “The House of Eorl”)

And in this, we see the ghosts of all those historical border-watchers, from the Romans to the Carolingians to the marcher lords of Wales and the turbulent border of England and Scotland.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Stay well,

Listen always for the sound of distant horns,

And remember that, as ever, there’s



A Fine Romance

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

Over the years, I’ve reviewed a number of films and, almost always, I’ve avoided negative comments, as there is all too much negativity on the internet already and because, when I see such criticism, I usually find that it’s simply not helpful.  What I try to do in my reviews is:

1. understand what the makers are attempting

2. evaluate how well I believe that they have succeeded. 

In doing so, I’ve sometimes gone against much mainstream criticism—I thought that Obi Wan had much more to offer than some professional reviewers thought, for example.  (If you’re interested to see my reaction, see  “Obi:  Won? (One)” 6 July, 2022, and “Obi:  Won? (Two)” 13 July, 2022.)

Because I’m about to teach The Hobbit again, that’s brought me back to the 3-part Jackson film and my  initial reaction to it which was, I confess, negative, so much so that, although I’ve owned  a set of Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, since it was first released and have rewatched some scenes more than once (the Rohirrim, as you’ll know if you read this blog regularly, are my favorite part),

I’ve never invested in his Hobbit

and I doubt that I ever will.

There are many reasons for this, including the bloated nature of the whole, the overemphasis on Thorin and his death, the many changes to the text,  the addition of an anarchronistic pursuing villain, “Azog the Defiler” (dead 150 years, in fact, before the events in The Hobbit).

and the turning of Radagast the Brown into a buffoon,

thus making him seem like what Saruman calls him, “Radagast the Bird-tamer!  Radagast the Simple!  Radagast the Fool!” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”), rather than one of the five Istari  sent to Middle-earth to counter Sauron.

This last, I suppose, was meant by the script writers somehow to “lighten” the story for a moment—for all that its initial tone (which Tolkien was later to dislike) was almost jokey, with its “Gandalf!  If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him…” etc,  it’s, ultimately, at least for me, a rather serious book (I point to things like Bilbo’s riddling game, which could have ended in his death, the destruction of Lake-town, and the book’s depiction of grief at the death of Thorin, for examples).

Another moment, which combines that “lightening” with one of the many changes to the text was the insertion of a completely new character, “Tauriel”,

and her suggested romance with one of the dwarves, Kili,

and this is what I’ve been thinking about most recently. 

Making Tauriel into a warrior strikes me as coming from the same impulse which, rumor has it, made the script writers think to turn Arwen into a kind of Elf-ninja until fan reaction forced them to abandon that idea (although she does replace Glorfindel as the owner of Asfaloth, and carries Frodo across the Ford of Rivendell)

and would have had her fight at Helm’s deep.  On the one hand, I certainly respect the urge to produce more fierce woman warriors in films and books—which is why I so much enjoy  and reread the works of Tamora Pierce, who has a number of brave (and often tricky) female characters, in her series The Song of the Lioness,(which is about a female knight)

Trickster’s Choice,

and Provost’s Dog.

(If you don’t know her work and these interest you, see: )

On the other hand, although the latest on-line series of Tolkien-related material, Rings of Power, presents us with a scrappy Galadriel (based , at least in part,  it seems,  upon a remark in one of JRRT’s late letters—“…in her youth a leader in the rebellion against the Valar…”—“from a letter to Mrs. Ruth Austin” 25 January, 1971, Letters, 407), it seems clear that, with the exception of Eowyn (and what a wonderful exception she is),

(Denis Gordeev)

Tolkien takes the very traditional view that women, (unless, say, enchantresses or goddesses like Circe

(Briton Riviere)

or Athena (one of my two favorite characters in The Odyssey)

or my other favorite Odyssey character, Penelope)

(This is a fragment of a tapestry by the remarkable Dora Wheeler Keith, 1856-1940.)

are, as in so much of western epic, to be sidelined, in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings,

(But how I wish that he had said much more about “the famous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took” teasingly mentioned almost in passing in Chapter One of The Hobbit!)

Introducing a woman warrior into a text which has no female characters and, in fact, is virtually without mention of any females at all, seems rather like the appearance of Azog, a kind of interference for “dramatic effect” with the fairy tale “feel” and pace of the story as Tolkien wrote it, but using her for a kind of “love interest” goes beyond that, I think, especially when we consider what JRRT had to say about romance in The Lord of the Rings

“Since we now try to deal with ‘ordinary life’, springing up ever unquenched under the trample of world policies and events, there are love-stories touched in, or love in different modes, wholly absent from The Hobbit.  But the highest love-story, that of Aragon and Arwen Elrond’s daughter is only alluded to as a known thing.  It is told elsewhere in a short tale, Of Aragorn and Arwen Undomiel.  I think that the simple ‘rustic’ love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero’s) character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes, and the ‘longing for Elves’, and sheer beauty.”  (letter to Milton Waldman, “probably written late in 1951”, Letters, 160-161)

Tolkien, then, sees The Hobbit , unlike The Lord of the Rings, as a pure fairy tale, removed from “the trample of world policies and events” and, presumably, in no need of the contrast between “quests, sacrifice, causes, and the ‘longing for Elves’, and sheer beauty” and “breathing, eating, working, begetting” which makes him insist upon “the simple ‘rustic’ love of Sam and his Rosie” as “absolutely essential”. 

This is especially true, when we attach to that phrase“the study of his (the chief hero’s) character”—this is, the character of Frodo,  whoTolkien says “will naturally become too ennobled and rarefied by the great Quest”, whereas Sam is, for Tolkien, not only “this jewel among the hobbits” (letter to Christopher Tolkien, 28 July, 1944, Letters, 88), but  also“the most closely drawn character, the successor to Bilbo of the first book, the genuine hobbit.”  (letter to Christopher Tolkien, 24 December, 1944, Letters, 105)

Although he becomes sturdy and even wily in the course of his adventures, Bilbo is hardly “ennobled” or “rarefied” at the story’s end, being content to return to his former  domestic life (with an occasional foray to visit elves).  In such a story as his, what place would a romance  (improbable to begin with)  between  an elf and a dwarf  possibly have?

As ever, thanks for reading.

Stay well,

Believe that the author knows what s/he’s doing,

And remember that there’s always



Booking It

As always, dear readers, welcome.

In my last two postings, I talked about what Tolkien had once referred to as favorite passages in The Lord of the Rings, they being the departure of the Fellowship from Lorien and the sound of the Rohirrim horns at cockcrow.

I certainly agreed with JRRT about the horns, and had more to say about their owners, but I have another favorite (and very melancholy) one.

In a pause during their final approach to Mordor, Frodo and Sam are quietly talking, and, in mid-speech, Sam says:

“ ‘Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales.  We’re in one, of course; but I mean:  put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards…’

‘Why, Sam, [Frodo] said, ‘to hear you makes me laugh as merry as if the story was already written.  But you’ve left out one of the chief characters:  Samwise the stouthearted…’

‘Now, Mr. Frodo,’ said Sam, ‘you shouldn’t make fun.  I was serious.’

‘So was I,’ said Frodo, ‘and so I am.  We’re going on a bit too far.  You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point:  “Shut the book, now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.” ‘ “ (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 8, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”)

This is not only melancholy, but also ironic:  we’re reading from that very book when we read these words:  the Red Book of Westmarch.

(This is actually one of Tolkien’s models, the Welsh Red Book of Hergest, which dates from the 1380s and contains, among other things, the cycle of mythological stories called the Mabinogi.  For more about the book see:   For an annotated translation of the whole cycle, see:  If you don’t know them, I would add here Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, based in part upon elements of the cycle, but with their own wonderful creativity.)

As Tolkien explains it, this:

“…most important source for the history of the War of the Rings was so called because it was long preserved at Undertowers, the home of the Fairbairns, Wardens of the Westmarch.  It was in origin Bilbo’s private diary, which he took with him to Rivendell.  Frodo brought it back to the Shire, together with many loose leaves of notes, and during S.R. 1420-1 he nearly filled its pages with his account of the War.” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, “Note on the Shire Records”)

“the history of the War of the Rings” is, of course, again, the book we’re reading, The Lord of the Rings, and here JRRT is playing games with the idea that what we’re reading is:

a. a translation (he being the translator and editor)

b. real history 

and not a long, complex novel which he has created over many years.  What interests me at the moment, however, is the very written nature of all this.  Although Sam mentions “songs or tales…put into words, you know, told by the fireside”, he also talks about “a great big book with red and black letters” and Frodo, trying to be realistic, then closes this book, implying that the story has become too dark for anyone to want to read further.  But we do read further, of course, and, before or after, we add The Hobbit, which Tolkien informs us is to

“…be found in the selection from the Red Book of Westmarch that has already been published, under the title of The Hobbit.  That story was derived from the earlier chapters of the Red Book, composed by Bilbo himself…” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, 1 Concerning Hobbits)

At base, then, of at least one part of the Red Book, which is, eventually,  a whole collection of volumes—five, we’re told (“Note on the Shire Records”)—is “Bilbo’s private diary” and I’ve always wondered what was meant by that.  Does Tolkien intend us to understand that, throughout the period in which Bilbo and the dwarves were involved in their quest, he kept a journal?  This doesn’t seem possible, as one wonders when and where he might have kept it—everything which Bilbo and the dwarves had brought with them from the beginning of their journey had been taken by the goblins when they were captured and, even if such a thing had survived (although Bilbo never is seen writing in it and, in fact, it’s never mentioned), surely his adventure on the barrel would have meant the end of it.

(by JRRT himself)

And we should add to this Tolkien’s remark, “Frodo…nearly filled its pages with his account of the War.”  Are we to assume that Frodo also kept a diary? 

All of this is just a fiction about a fiction, of course.  Even if both Bilbo and Frodo had kept diaries and they had somehow miraculously survived even the journey to Mount Doom, it’s past belief that all of the detailed material in the texts came directly from them—how, for example, would Frodo have known about the conversation among Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli in their race to save Merry and Pippin?  Or, for that matter, the conversation among the orcs they were pursuing?  (Although, at a stretch, Merry and Pippin might have provided some sense of the latter.)

Thinking about this fiction of a fiction made me imagine something like the following, however—and I suppose I should post a “WARNING:  SILLINESS AHEAD!” sign here.

When Odysseus returned to his home on Ithaka, in the 19th year since he’d left for Troy, it wasn’t to a peaceful retirement.  Over 100 suitors were spending time in his home, consuming his food and drink and attempting to persuade his wife that they were each an excellent replacement for her husband—whom they considered long dead (or pretended to).

(J.W. Waterhouse)

The house-cleaning which followed would eradicate those pests for good,

(Alan Lee)

but some of their families would, not surprisingly, still need dealing with.  Before Odysseus and his small band of son, father, and slaves would, with Athena’s help, settle that matter, however, he was granted a moment of reunion with his wife, Penelope.

(another Alan Lee)

Before any amorous behavior, the two exchanged stories of what had happened to them in the long years of their separation.  (I suspect that Odysseus may have glossed over certain details of the year he spent at Circe’s

(another Waterhouse)

or the seven years with Kalypso.)

(George Hitchcock)

Considering that they had 19 years of experiences to recount to each other, it’s no wonder that Athena kindly lengthened the night for them.  And, as they lived in an oral world,  they would have been quite at home listening to and telling such long stories—or  would have been even singing them, as did the two aoidoi, or professional singers, Phemios and Demodokos, who appear in the poem.  And, in real life, it was generations of nameless aoidoi who actually created the later composite we know as the Odyssey.

Suppose, however, that Odysseus, like Frodo, had written the poem himself, having somehow managed to keep a diary through his entire voyage home—what would a page of  that diary have looked like?


Dear Diary,

Yesterday, I took my ship over to the mainland, where some of us visited a cave which was full of cheese.  Being hungry, we helped ourselves.  But then the owner came home.  He was very large and had only one eye, right in the middle of his forehead.

Although I reminded him that the hospitality which we looked for was a sacred right, protected by Zeus, he proceeded to eat a number of my crew, having assured me that his people (Cyclopses) weren’t in the least afraid of the Gods.  Fortunately, I had brought along a really good vintage to serve at lunch and this creature had a weak head, so, after he got really hammered, we sharpened his walking stick and put out his eye with it.  Ouch!

Then we stole his sheep and ran away.

It rained late in the afternoon.”

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Stay well,

If you’re planning to visit a new friend for lunch, be very certain that you know what’s on the menu,

And remember that, as ever, there’s



Horning In (2)

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

In my last posting, I had quoted Tolkien on one of his two favorite moments in The Lord of the Rings:

“If it is of interest, the passages that now move me most—written so long ago that I read them now as if they had been written by someone else—are the end of the chapter Lothlorien (I 365-7), and the horns of the Rohirrim at cockcrow.”  (from extracts made by Humphrey Carpenter of JRRT’s commentary on a proposed article for the Daily Telegraph from an interview by Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, 8 February, 1967, Letters, 376)

I especially agree with the latter, and, in my last, linked it to the Rohirrim themselves, both in the novel and in their depiction in the Jackson films, particularly in their charge across the fields of the Pelennor against the Orcs so focused upon their attack against Minas Tirith (although the script writers have left out the cock).

The Rohirrim might seem, by the sweep of their charge, like a mob of horsemen,

but a closer examination of them suggests something very different.  To begin with, they fight in units of about 120, called an eored (which is, like so many of the bits we get of their language, actually an Old English word which can mean, among other things “a troop of cavalry”).  As well, they appear to understand the need for reserves, as this image may show us, where you may be able to see the riders grouped into eored, as well as perceive that there are, in fact, two lines of horsemen, just the sort of thing trained cavalry did so that the second line could supply support for the first.

A useful example of this can be seen here, in this period depiction of the charge of the British Light Brigade at Balaclava, in October, 1854, where there are, in fact, three lines of cavalry.

If, as I think we can, assume that the Rohirrim aren’t operating in a very loose fashion, rather like, say, a depiction of Lakota on the Great Plains,

(a wonderful image painted  on buffalo hide by a Native American of warriors in combat with soldiers)

then we can also assume that their movements require training.  For units, like eored, to work together as they do in their great charge on the orcs, means that that training would require uniformity throughout the whole of the Rohirrim.   JRRT, who, had himself once, briefly, been a cavalryman (for more on this, please see the previous post), hasn’t left us a Rohirrim drill book, but I believe he has left us a number of clues which we can dig out of The Lord of the Rings to help us. 

To begin, of course, there is that unit, the eored.  Eomer commands one when he encounters Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli on the grassy plains of Rohan, and it’s from him that we first hear that term:

“ ‘Peace, Eothain!’ said Eomer in his own tongue.  ‘Leave me a while.  Tell the eored to assemble on the path, and make ready to ride to the Entwade.”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 2, “The Riders of Rohan”—“Eothain”, who appears to be Eomer’s lieutenant, has an appropriate name, in Old English it would be something like “Warhorse-vassal”, where  “Eo” can mean “steed” and “thain” “someone who holds land in exchange for military service”. )

These riders have just exterminated a combined band of Sauron’s and Saruman’s Orcs and, from their actions, we learn a certain amount:

1. they march in what is called “a column of twos” :  “In pairs they galloped by…” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 2, “The Riders of Rohan”)

2. when they camp, it seems as that they are as organized as the Romans, who made fortified camps at the end of every day’s march,

although without the wall and ditch:

“On all the level spaces there was a great concourse of men. ..but stretching away into the distance behind there were ordered rows of tents and booths, and lines of picketed horses…Watchmen heavily cloaked paced to and fro.”  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 3, “The Muster of Rohan”)

3. they have scouts who move ahead of the column (“ ‘The scouts have come back at last,’ said an Orc close at hand.  ‘Well, what did you discover?’ growled the voice of Ugluk.  ‘Only a single horseman, and he made off westwards.  All’s clear now.’ ‘Now, I daresay.  But how long?  You fools!  You should have shot him.  He’ll raise the alarm.  The cursed horsebreeders will hear of us by morning.  Now we’ll have to leg it double quick.’ “ (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)  Ugluk’s fear is proven true when Eomer tells Aragorn:  “But scouts warned me of the orc-host coming down out of the East Wall four nights ago.”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 2, “The Riders of Rohan”)

4. a standard form of attack is the movement to encircle the enemy—when Aragorn hails them: 

“With astonishing speed and skill they checked their steeds, wheeled, and came charging round.  Soon the three companions found themselves in a ring of horsemen moving in a running circle, up the hill-slope behind them and down, round and round them, and drawing ever inwards. ..

Without a word or cry, suddenly, the Riders halted.  A thicket of spears pointed towards the strangers; and some of the horsemen had bows in hand, and their arrows were already fitted to the string.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 2, “The Riders of Rohan”) 

This is how the Orcs who are carrying Pippin and Merry are stopped:

“The Riders were drawing in their ring, close round the knoll, risking the orc-arrows, so as to prevent any sortie…”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 2, “The Riders of Rohan”)

5.  to finish the job, the Rohirrim shift from a circle to  to a charge—in this case, with their backs to the rising sun, thereby blinding the enemy:

“…Then with a great cry the Riders charged from the East; the red light gleamed on mail and spear.  The Orcs yelled and shot all the arrows that remained to them.  The hobbits saw several horsemen fall; but their line held on up the hill and over it, and wheeled round and charged again.”( The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 2, “The Riders of Rohan”)

6. at the battle on the fields of the Pelennor, we see another possible formation, this one very much like one used in our Middle-earth, by Philip II of Macedon and then by his son, Alexander.

(by Giuseppe Rava)

 This was a wedge, pointed directly at the enemy’s line, seeking a weak spot and, finding one, broke the enemy apart (Theoden is attacking the king of the Haradrim):

“Then Theoden was aware of him, and would not wait for his onset, but crying to Snowmane he charged headlong to greet him.  Great was the clash of their meeting.  But the white fury of the Northmen burned the hotter, and more skilled was their knighthood with long spears and bitter.  Fewer were they but they clove through the Southrons like a fire-bolt in a forest.  Right through the press drove Theoden Thengel’s son…” (The Two Towers, Book Five, Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”)

And we see this again, a little later in the same battle:

“…The great wrath of [Eomer’s] onset had utterly overthrown the front of his enemies, and great wedges of his Riders had passed clear through the ranks of the Southrons, discomfiting their horsemen and riding their footmen to ruin.” 

But what about those horns? 

It seems, in fact, that the Rohirrim have two kinds, at least.  When Theoden and his company ride to the muster of the Rohan, we hear this:

“Then one blew a long call on a horn.  It echoed in the valley.  Other horns answered it, and lights shone out across the river.

And suddenly there rose a great chorus of trumpets from high above, sounding from some hollow place, as it seemed, that gathered their notes into one voice and sent ti rolling and beating on the walls of stone.”  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 3, “The Muster of Rohan”)

Horn and trumpet are clearly to be distinguished here.  They aren’t described, so it’s up to us readers to imagine.  I suspect that most people would see “horn” and think of something Vikingish or like Roland’s olifant

in La Chanson de Roland,

the sort of thing that the ill-fated Boromir carried.

(Artist Monkeys)

As for “trumpets”, I myself imagine something like this,

which would be a bit tricky to use on horseback, whereas Roland’s horn would be just right for mounted men—and for dramatic moments in a narrative:

“Gandalf did not move.  And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed.  Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note.  Horns, horns, horns.  In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed.  Great horns of the North wildly blowing.  Rohan had come at last.”  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”)

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Stay well,

Remember that, at cockcrow, evil things flee away,

And also know that, as always, there’s



Horning In (1)

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

In the commentary included in a reply to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer of 8 February, 1967, Tolkien says that “the passages that now move me most” from The Lord of the Rings are:

“…the end of the chapter Lothlorien (I 365-7), and the horns of the Rohirrim at cockcrow.” (Letters, 376)

For me, it’s that second passage, just as it is the depiction of the Rohirrim in general  which I find the most satisfying parts of Jackson’s film adaptation of the books.

As he based his depiction upon his native New Zealand, Jackson was faced with a geographical difficulty, however:  Rohan is, basically, a great, grassy plain,

probably something like this—

which was the sort of place upon which ancient peoples from our Middle-earth, like the Skythians,

lived and bred their herds.    The problem is that there is no area like that on New Zealand’s two main islands, but, with some very intelligent and creative location and camera work (as well as a huge construction project), we are given the look of Rohan, even without those missing plains.

I’m afraid that I don’t find the armor of the Rohirrim quite so convincing–

as in this image of Theoden, who appears to be wearing an awkward combination of plate armor and lamellar of leather (lamellar consists of small, overlapping pieces of metal or leather and is a very old method of armoring, being used, for example, by New Kingdom Egyptians—see this useful excerpt from a Nova special entitled “Building Pharaoh’s Chariot”:  and here’s the whole excellent documentary: ).  To me, it appears much more like something from Frank Frazetta

than the Rohirrim described by Tolkien:

“The styles of the Bayeux Tapestry…fit them well enough, if one remembers that the kind of tennis-nets [the] soldiers seem to have on are only a clumsy conventional sign for chain-mail of small rings.” (letter to Rhona Beare, 14 October, 1958, Letters, 281)

Here’s what JRRT was thinking of—

and here’s a modern reconstruction by Christopher Rothero—

(The skirts are split to make it easier to wear while riding a horse.)  So this is probably more like what Tolkien imagined–

(Could that Frazetta illustration have suggested the mode of conveyance of Jadis, the White Witch, in the 2005 film of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?)

But then we hear the horns at cockcrow and we see the Rohirrim line up to charge and even if the armor looks off, the mass of horsemen certainly don’t.

(And here’s the scene if you don’t have it handy:  Although missing the cockcrow, it seems.)

And mass is what we see, as in this overhead shot—

or do we?

Looking more closely at this image, there’s more order here than would first appear, and we have a clue to this from JRRT via Eomer, and two glosses:

1. when Eomer wants to speak to Aragorn alone, he tells his lieutenant, Eothain, he tells him:  ‘Tell the eored to assemble on the path…” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 2, “The Riders of Rohan)

2. the 1966 Index:  “a troop of Riders of Rohan (Index, 1154)

3. a note by Tolkien himself:  “a ‘full eored’ in battle order was reckoned to contain not less than 120 men (including the Captain)” (“In a note to Cirion and Eorl and the Friendship of Gondor and Rohan” quoted in Hammond and Scull, The Lord of the Rings:  A Reader’s Companion, 369)

This suggests that the Rohirrim cavalry were divided into distinct units, like Roman cavalry alae, which could then number 16 or 24 turmae, a turma having about 32 troopers.

Taking it that the Rohirrim were formed into eored (one of JRRT’s many Rohirric borrowings from Old English, the word meaning, among other things, “cavalry troop”), look again at the image of the massed horsemen from the film.

First, notice that the riders are actually in ranks.  Next, notice that there seem to be divisions between blocks of mounted men.  Then notice that those men are then divided into two larger units, the one following the other, with a gap between.  What we’re seeing here, then, isn’t just a mob (although, once crashing into orc ranks it will become much more like one), but, instead, a series of units, one group forming the initial attacking force, the second its reserves—and, if you see it this way, you can then imagine that there’s more discipline here, like the famous (and near-fatal) charge of the British Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava in October, 1854, where the Brigade was in three lines, as you can see from the image, so that the second and third lines could support the first. 

This is, as I said, an image from the Jackson film, but JRRT had, himself, once been a cavalryman, if only briefly, in King Edward’s Horse.  (Carpenter, Tolkien, 65)

He would have been well aware of the kind of training and discipline which went into being a trooper, although, at the beginning of the 20th century,  when he was in his unit, there was considerable argument among military men about the role of cavalry.  Some believed that, with the advent of weapons like the machine gun,

cavalry, if it continued at all, should be used as mounted infantry,

employing their horses for riding to a fight, then dismounting for combat.  Others—often older officers–still believed that there was a role for the traditional mounted charge—in the right circumstances.

But the power of modern weapons won out and, throughout most of the Great War on the Western Front, cavalry either spent time in the rear, waiting for their big chance, or were converted to infantry.  (For a stylized view of what might happen to cavalry should they attack machine guns, see this clip from the  2011 film War Horse: )

The Rohirrim, whom Tolkien once called “heroic ‘Homeric’ horsement” (letter to Milton Waldman, “probably written late in 1951”, Letters, 159) come from a time and place where bows were the most powerful missile weapons, however, and their own weapons would be, like Tolkien’s Normans on the Bayeux Tapestry, lances (or spears) and swords.

If we begin with the idea that the Rohirrim were grouped into units, like Roman cavalry, might they have been drilled like Roman cavalry and even fought like them?   There seems to be evidence in The Lord of the  Rings to suggest something like that and,  in the second part of this posting, I want to consider what we might learn from a little close reading.

And, speaking of reading, thanks for doing so, as ever.

Stay well,

Use your spear underhand to deal with fleeing orcs,

(This very well done image is by Darren Tan, whose other work, much of it fantasy/sf, can be found at: )

And remember that, as always, there’s



 Things You/They Know That Ain’t

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

(Dumbo, 1941)

Dumbo the elephant and his friend, Timothy, the mouse, are having a rather bad moment,

being haunted by a vision of PINK ELEPHANTS.

(Here’s the surrealistic scene from the Disney film, in case you haven’t seen it: )

They can blame this on the fact that they have accidentally been imbibing.


What kind of explanation, however, can you produce when there appears to be no valid reason for seeing something which, in your country, officially, doesn’t even exist?

We’re not talking about Area 51 and its secrets,

but about events which took place in Stalinist Moscow sometime in the late 1920s, early 1930s,

when the Communist government insisted upon an atheistic state and worked energetically to eradicate both churches and clergy.    


(For a short but useful article on Stalinist aggressive atheism, see: )

But then Satan appears,

with some very destructive assistants,

including a cat with a taste for vodka.


(And perhaps this gives a new meaning to the German word for “hangover”:   Katzenjammer—“the wailing of cats”.)

What can be the official line when non-existent Satan and those assistants turn Moscow upside down?

What I’m describing here is, in fact, not history, but Soviet-era fiction, in Mikhail Bulgakov’s (1891-1940)

The Master and Margarita (1928-1940).

It’s a very strange and entertaining book which, unfortunately, as least for the near future, I’m doomed to read in any number of English translations, beginning with the first, Mirra Ginsburg’s,

then Michael Glenny’s,

and, just recently, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s.

(For an excellent article comparing translations, see: )

It’s also a very complex book, in which, although Satan (calling himself “Woland”) is a major worker within the plot, that plot also includes:

1. the (otherwise unnamed) Master, a novelist, who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate and character called “Yeshua” but who, suffering from despair, destroys the manuscript and ends up in a Moscow asylum,

2. the dealings of Pilate with Yeshua—and with Yeshua’s disciple, Matthew Levi,

3. the Master’s heroic mistress, Margarita,

4. the poet, Ivan Homeless, who has had an early encounter with Woland and appears in the same Moscow asylum as the Master

5. a large cast of minor characters, many of them from the Moscow theatrical world, who become entangled in the story through Satan/Woland’s one-night appearance at a Moscow theatre

For a plot summary and much more, see:

Although we see the Soviet state incapable of dealing realistically with Satan and his mischief, it did its usual—short of Gulag or execution—with Bulgakov, a venereologist turned novelist/dramatist, insuring that very little of his work ever reached publication or the stage.  In fact, Bulgakov became so desperate that he actually wrote to the head of all state persecutors, Stalin, asking to be allowed to emigrate, as he couldn’t work as a writer in his own country.  (The inevitable answer was, of course, no.)  Oddly, that same persecutor continued to spare Bulgakov, having loved one of his few literary pieces to appear, his play The Days of the Turbins (1926), reportedly seeing it at least 15 times.

(a photo from the original production)

The play was based upon Bulgakov’s 1925 novel, The White Guard,

which, ironically and like so much of Bulgakov’s work, never achieved publication in Russia in his lifetime.  It was begun serially in a magazine (Rossiya), which was closed down before more than the first two parts of the novel could appear.  (The title page above is from an edition published in Riga in 1927.)

In a way, it was Bulgakov’s own fault that he remained in publishing limbo.  Considering that The White Guard makes heroes of the Whites—that is, the anti-Bolsheviks at the time of the Russian Civil War (1917-1923)—

a second unpublished work from 1925, The Heart of a Dog,

(the first English translation)

details the adventures of a stray mutt initially called Sharik, who is turned into a brutal Soviet citizen, Poligraph Poligrafovich Sharikov, and The Master and Margarita shows in outline both the tangled bureaucracy of the new Russia, as well as the police state always just out of sight, but always present, it’s not surprising that Stalin’s literary henchmen would block Bulgakov’s attempts to bring his work to the reading public. 

I find these wonderful, crazy works, but I can also imagine the Soviet censors, faced with such elegant, imaginative criticism, and unable to offer any believable counter-criticism, would behave just as the lyric of that song with which I began puts it, shouting:

“What a sight!

Chase ‘em away!  Chase ‘em away!”

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Stay well,

If you encounter those elephants, best just to close your eyes,

And know that, as ever, there’s