We’re All Mad…Here?

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

This posting is a kind of P.S. to the previous belated-Valentine’s Day piece.

After using a Valentine quotation from Chaucer’s The Parlement of Foules (c.1380), I had thought that I would move on to a Renaissance reference, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c.1600).  The posting was a fairly jolly one, however, and the quotation I was going to use was certainly not.  In modern editions, it’s from Act IV, Scene 5, when Ophelia drifts in

and talks and sings in a strange mixture, but, through it all, makes some very pointed references to the death of her father and to her BF, Hamlet’s, treatment of her, as in:

“To morrow is saint Valentines day,

All in the morning betime,

And a maide at your window,

To be your Valentine:

The yong man rose, and dan’d his clothes,

And dupt the chamber doore,

Let in the maide, that out a maide

Neuer departed more.

Nay I pray marke now,

By gisse, and by saint Charitie,

Away, and fie for shame:

Yong men will doo’t when they come too’t

By cocke they are too blame.

Quoth she, before you tumbled me,

You promised me to wed.

So would I a done, by yonder Sunne,

If thou hadst not come to my bed.”

(Hamlet, 1ST Quarto, modern lines 2790-2804)

Because I prefer Elizabethan spelling, I’ve chosen to use the 1st Quarto, the first publication of the play, from 1603.

This is also the so-called “Bad Quarto”, named that because, in contrast to the 2nd Quarto, of 1604, and the Folio, of 1623, it is not only shorter, but has all sorts of quirks, including Polonius being renamed “Corambis”, and a rather different version of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, beginning:

“To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,

To Die, to sleepe, is that all?  I all.”

I find it a very interesting text in its changes (Hamlet’s mother becomes convinced that her new husband is a murderer, for instance), as much as it’s fun to watch scholars muster arguments this way and that, many of them quite ingenious, about what, exactly, this Quarto is:  an early draft?  the equivalent of a bootleg?  the victim of a mad printer’s devil?

If the latter, then it certainly fits with Ophelia’s behavior—but then Hamlet himself pretends to be mad—

and, as the story progresses, he certainly seems, at times, to be skating at the edge of less-than-calmly-sane reactions himself.  In fact, if it weren’t that others had also seen the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father at the play’s opening,

I’ve sometimes thought about a different play, one in which Hamlet, upset at his father’s sudden death and his mother’s somewhat hasty remarriage to her brother-in-law, has imagined the whole thing and, in his madness, has caused all of the calamities which then happen:  the deaths of Ophelia, her father, and her brother and of his uncle and mother, not to mention that of the real stars of the show, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern–

and of Hamlet, himself, of course.

Ophelia’s behavior has been parodied, perhaps most famously by W.S Gilbert (1836-1911)

of Gilbert & Sullivan fame,

in the person of “Mad Margaret”

in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore (originally Ruddygore) of 1887.

She, like Ophelia, has been driven mad through misfortune and her strange dress is matched by her odd speech:

“MAR. You pity me? Then be my mother! The squirrel had a mother; but she drank and the squirrel fled! Hush! They sing a brave song in our parts – it runs somewhat thus: (sings)“The cat and the dog and the little puppee Sat down in a – down in a – in a –” I forget what they sat down in, but so the song goes!”

 (WS Gilbert, Ruddigore, Act I)

(If you don’t know this operetta, you’ll be happy to learn that, after a startling revelation at the end of Act I, she is reunited with the man who jilted her and the two become sober members of society—with certain zany lapses on her part.  If you would like to read the text, here’s a LINK:   https://gsarchive.net/ruddigore/libretto.pdf   )

As Ophelia appears to have an overabundance of flowers, (each with its own significance, as she points out) as a sign of her distracted state—and which, in fact, will lead to her death,

so one element of Margaret’s dress—the straws sticking out of her hair—

Is supposed to suggest that, in her madness, she’s been a wanderer in body, as in mind.  Those straws as a mark of mental instability are, in fact, older than Ruddigore.  In 1865, 22 years before the operetta, we see them mixed in with the hair—of a hare.

In that year, an odd book appeared, entitled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

In Chapter VII, the Alice of the title happens upon a peculiar outdoor tea party, whose hosts are this hare and a man in an oversized hat. 

She has already had them identified by, of all things, a talking cat

who seems to be able to appear and disappear at will,

and who says of the two:

“In that direction…lives a Hatter:  and in that direction lives a March Hare.”

(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter VI)

Alice is aware of the folk belief that, in March, hares are supposed to be mad (something to do with the mating season, it was thought), saying:

“I’ve seen hatters before…the March Hare will be much the more interesting, and perhaps, as this is May, it wo’n’t be raving mad—at least not so mad as it was in March.” 

It’s clear, however, that she doesn’t know that the mercury used in the preparation of hats, when inhaled, as it would have been in workshops in 1865, had terrible effects upon those working there, including everything from delirium to personality change and memory loss.  From such reactions, the expression “mad as a hatter” had entered the language—and the story.  (As usual, by the way, there is argument over the real derivation of the expression, but it appears to me that there may be a confusion over the word “mad”, with its secondary meaning of “angry”.  For a rather confused article on the subject, see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_as_a_hatter )

When she arrives at the party, it’s evident that this is not a standard Victorian tea,

and, by the end of it, as Alice slips away, the hare and the hatter appear to be trying to drown another guest, a dormouse, in the pot. 

Perhaps Alice would have been wise to have listened more carefully to all of what the talking cat had said about her hosts:

“ ‘Visit either you like:  they’re both mad.’

‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.

‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat:  we’re all mad here.  I’m mad.  You’re mad.’

‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.

‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’ “

It’s a pity no one had said that to Ophelia.

So, as always, thanks for reading.

Stay well and avoid men with oversized hats and poor table manners

And know that, as ever, there’s




In case you’d like to read that rather different Hamlet, here’s a LINK:  https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/doc/Ham_Q1/scene/1/


And here’s an Alice text with the original Tenniel illustrations in place:  https://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/wp-content/uploads/alice-in-wonderland.pdf

Would You Be Mine

Welcome, dear readers, as always.

Although the title of this posting refers to Valentine’s Day messages (this is a belated Valentine for you, readers),

the words remind me of something which, if you grew up watching US children’s television from 1966 to 2001 (and from 1964, if you lived in Canada), you would have heard sung every week:

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

source: https://www.lyricsondemand.com/tvthemes/mrrogersneighborhoodlyrics.html

This was the theme song for “Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood”, starring—surprise!—Mr Rogers.

If you don’t know it, here’s a link:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jqzgaL3n_c  If you do know it, take a moment to admire his neat use of enjambment (a poetic term meaning running the meaning of one line into the next) in his first rhyme:

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,

A beautiful day for a neighbor

Would you be mine?

Notice, also, that, instead of using the simple indicative—“will you”, he’s employed the past tense of “will”–“would”–which, in English, has a potential conditional feeling, as if he wants you to, but he’s leaving it up to you (and that “could” in the next line makes it even tentative—“is it physically possible?” which, as Mr Rogers was behind a television screen, wasn’t possible, except metaphorically—or, as Mr R might have put it, spiritually)

Although not a major poet, Mr Rogers has become a sort of secular saint, which is not surprising, given his gentle, but persistent message encouraging children to be kind to and tolerant of all those around them.

And this brings up back to St Valentine.  And his day.  Or not.

As I began this posting, I thought that I had remembered that the Vatican had had a kind of purge of the liturgical calendar in 1969, and popular saints, like St Christopher

and St Valentine

were removed because there simply was so little evidence about them.  In fact, they weren’t actually removed, permanently, but, rather, they were gently nudged to one side and their feast days could still be celebrated, St Valentine’s being 14 February.  So far, so good, but then, when one plunges into the backstory, well, the Vatican was right:  not only so little evidence, but much of it based upon conjecture and myth-making.

What little that can be said of him is that:

a. there may be two of him

   1. Valentinus of Rome

   2. Valentinus of Terni (Roman Interamna)

(there is a ghostly third Valentinus, but he doesn’t appear to be in the running)

b. someone named Valentinus was supposedly martyred in Rome in the 3rd century AD during the administration of an emperor named “Claudius”—there being a problem with this in that the only 3rd-century emperor of that name

was a soldier who spent almost the entirety of his short reign (268-270AD) defending the borders of the empire, far from Rome

c. he was buried by the Flaminian gate, on the north side of Rome

and a church, holding his relics, including his skull

was built upon the spot—which seems to have disappeared, and that skull is actually in an 8th-12th-century Byzantine church, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, in another part of Rome.  (How it got there and why it’s identified with Valentine is its own mystery.  There are relics of this blurry saint in other locations, in fact, even in Dublin.)

d. he may have cured someone of blindness and someone else of an odd crippling condition, although these stories are fairly common, it seems, in the history of saints in general (called hagiography)

e. he doesn’t appear in the earliest list of Christian martyrs, the Chronography of 354, but makes an appearance in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, put together between 460 and 544AD, reportedly drawn from earlier sources

All pretty shaky, I’m afraid.  But what about his association with lovers, which is the basis of a whole candy, flowers, card industry?  Again—it appears to be myth-making, some of it possibly the work of one G Chaucer (c1340s-1400),

a bit more of a poet than Mr F Rogers. In his 699-line “dream vision”, The Parlement of Foules” (c.1380?), the poet moves from reading Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio” (Somnium Scipionis, a philosophic dialogue by the Roman orator, Cicero, 106-43BC) to a dream world which includes this:

“And in a launde, upon an hille of floures,
Was set this noble goddesse Nature;
Of braunches were hir halles and hir boures,
Y-wrought after hir craft and hir mesure;
Ne ther nas foul that cometh of engendrure,
That they ne were prest in hir presence,
To take hir doom and yeve hir audience.

For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thenke may;”

(The Parlement of Foules, 302-311)

That is:

“And in a land was set upon a hill of flowers

The noble goddess, Nature.  Her halls and bowers

Were made of branches, fashioned after their craft

  and dimensions.

There was no bird which exists

That wasn’t pressed to attend her,

To take her judgment and listen to her.

For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day,

When every bird of every kind that men think there is

Comes there to choose his mate.”

(My translation—and forgive me, Chaucer scholars for giving it a little modern color here and there.  For a very useful Middle English text with glossing, see:   http://www.librarius.com/parliamentfs.htm   )

Chaucer’s lines have been used to explain the saint’s connection with lovers, associating bird mating with (potential) human mating and reminding me of these lines from Cole Porter’s song, from his 1928 musical, Paris, “Let’s Do It”:

“And that’s why birds do it, bees do it,

Even educated fleas do it

Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.”

(Here’s Cole Porter himself singing it, to his own accompaniment:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZMk4a3uUVv0 )

So, with almost no actual saint, what are we to make of this day?  We began with a song, so perhaps it’s best to end as Chaucer does, with another song, to St Valentine, as sung by the birds:

“Saynt Valentyn, that art ful hy on-lofte

Thus singen smale foules for thy sake—

Now welcome somer, with thy sonne sonne,

That hast this wintres weders over-shake.”

(The Parlement of Foules, 683-686)

Thanks, as always for reading,

Stay warm while we wait for Chaucer’s somer,

And know that, as ever, there will be




I imagine that the birds’ song is clear, but, if not:

“Saint Valentine, you who are high above,

Little birds sing like this for your sake—

Now welcome, summer, with your sunny sun,

Which has overthrown this winter’s weather.”


Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

At the beginning of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, some fairies are discussing the banishment of one of their number, Iolanthe,

when they are interrupted by the Queen of the fairies,

 who explains:

Queen.  No, because your Queen, who loved her with a surpassing love, commuted her sentence to penal servitude for life, on condition that she left her husband and never communicated with him again!

Leila.  That sentence of penal servitude she is now working out, on her head, at the bottom of that stream!

Queen.  Yes, but when I banished her, I gave her all the pleasant places of the earth to dwell in.  I’m sure I never intended that she should go and live at the bottom of a stream!  It makes me perfectly wretched to think of the discomfort she must have undergone!

Leila.  Think of the damp!  And her chest was always delicate.

Queen.  And the frogs!  Ugh!  I never shall enjoy any peace of mind until I know why Iolanthe went to live among the frogs!   (W.S. Gilbert, Iolanthe, Act I)

This piece of dialogue made me wonder about damp living conditions in a few literary works, and, because I’ve recently taught Beowulf, I immediately thought of Grendel and his mother,

(An Alan Lee illustration.)

whose habitation was in a pool, in the midst of a moor.   The poem describes Grendel:

“wæs se grimma gaést      Grendel háten this ghastly demon was      named Grendel,
maére mearcstapa      sé þe móras héold infamous stalker in the marches,      he who held the moors,
fen ond fæsten·      fífelcynnes eard fen and desolate strong-hold;      the land of marsh-monsters,
wonsaélí wer      weardode hwíle10the wretched creature      ruled for a time”  

I would normally try to translate this myself, but, this time, I want to use this passage to point to a really useful site:https://heorot.dk/beowulf-rede-text.html  which, as you can see, has both the original text and a translation, plus extensive notes.  There are several Beowulf translations on-line and, along with this one, I would recommend that by Dick Ringler, which you can find at:  https://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/Literature/Literature-idx?type=header&id=Literature.RinglBeowulf&pview=hide 

Ringler’s translation, which, like the above, has lots of useful background information, is designed for oral delivery, and so has a very up-to-date feel to it. 

If you thought that Grendel’s neighborhood was bad, the pool in which he and his mother live was so terrifying that, as the text says:

“ofer þaém hongiað      hrímge bearwas·  1363over it hangs      frost-covered groves,
wudu wyrtum fæst      wæter oferhelmað· tree held fast by its roots      overshadows the water;
þaér mæg nihta gehwaém      níðwundor séon there one may every night      a horrible marvel see:
fýr on flóde·      nó þæs fród leofað fire on the water;      not even the wise of them lives,
gumena bearna      þæt þone grund wite. of men’s sons,      that knows the bottom.
Ðéah þe haéðstapa      hundum geswenced  1368Though the heath-stepper      harrassed by hounds,
heorot hornum trum      holtwudu séce the hart with strong horns,      seeks the forest,
feorran geflýmed·      aér hé feorh seleð put to flight from far,      first he will give up his life,
aldor on ófre      aér hé in wille existence on the shore,      before he will (leap) in
hafelan helan·      nis þæt héoru stów· to hide his head;      it is not a pleasant place;”

Iolanthe’s place of exile brought on thoughts of Beowulf.  In turn, the half-line fyr on flode, “fire upon water”, will remind The Lord of the Ring readers of:

“Presently it grew altogether dark:  the air itself seemed black and heavy to breathe.  When lights appeared Sam rubbed his eyes:  he thought his head was going queer  He first saw one with the corner of his left eye, a wisp of pale sheen that faded away; but others appeared soon after:  some like dimly shining smoke, some like misty flames flickering slowly above unseen candles; here and there they twisted like ghostly sheets unfurled by hidden hands…

At last Sam could bear it no longer.  ‘What’s all this, Gollum?’ he said in a whisper.  ‘These lights?  They’re all round us now.  Are we trapped?  Who are they?’

Gollum looked up.  A dark water was before him, and he was crawling on the ground, this way and that, doubtful of the way.  ‘The tricksy lights.  Candles of corpses, yes, yes.  Don’t you heed them!  Don’t look!  Don’t follow them!”  (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 2, “The Passage of the Marshes”)

I’ve always found this one of the most unsettling moments in Frodo and Sam’s long journey to Mt Doom, I think because of this:

“Hurrying forward again, Sam tripped, catching his foot in some old root or tussock.  He fell and came heavily on his hands, which sank deep into sticky ooze, so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mere.  There was a faint hss, a noisome smell went up, the lights flickered and danced and swirled.  For a moment the water below him looked like some window, glazed with grimy glass, through which he was peering.  Wrenching his hands out of the bog, he sprang back with a cry.  ‘There are dead things, dead faces in the water,’ he said with horror.  ‘Dead faces!’”   

In a letter to Prof L.W. Forster, 31 December, 1960, JRRT suggested an inspiration for such a place:

“The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.” (Letters, 303)

As the Great War progressed, the landscape of northern France/southern Belgium became permanently pock-marked from the endless fall of artillery shells.

As you can see, whenever it rained, these shell-holes filled with water and, during attacks, it was possible for advancing soldiers to fall in and drown.  I think that this is what Tolkien is suggesting was one idea behind the Dead Marshes.

Iolanthe is pardoned by the Fairy Queen

and leaves the stream for good, but I can do better than that.  In the musical Once Upon a Mattress,

Princess Winifred (her nickname?  “Fred”), while waiting to see what Queen Agravaine has in store for her in the way of a contest, (as in the original Andersen fairy tale, the princess must pass a test to gain the prince, Dauntless—but it’s his mother she has to satisfy, not the prince), she is asked by her (temporary, as far as the queen’s concerned) maids to describe her homeland, which she does:

Winnifred: I come from the land of the foggy, foggy dew ooh-ooh-ooh!
Ooh-ooh-ooh! Ooh-ooh-ooh!
Where walking through the meadow in the morning is like walking through glue!
The swamps of home are brushed with green and gold at break of day.

Dauntless: At break of day.
Winnifred: The swamps of home are lovely to behold from far away.
Dauntless: From far away.
Winnifred: In my soul is the beauty of the bog, in my memory the magic of the mud.
I know that blood is thicker than water but the swamps of home are thicker than blood.
Dauntless: Blo-o-od!
Winnifred: Where e’er I roam my heart grows dank and cold,
my face grows gray when shadows fall and I hear the call…
of the swamps of home.
Ladies: Ah…
Winnifred: I hear them calling me now, calling me back, calling me Winnifred,
Winnifred, Winnifred, Winnifred, who do you think you are?
Girl of the swamp,
Ladies: Winnifred, Winnifred
Winnifred: You’ve gone to far!
Maid of the marshland, give up the struggle!
Listen to the voice of the swamp;
Ladies: gluggle-uggle-uggle.
Winnifred: Where e’er I roam. The whips of fate may smart, but deep down in my heart
Ladies: ooh…
Winnifred: One thought will abide and will ne’er be forgotten,
though I search far and wide there is no land as rotten…
Ladies: Rotten, rotten, rotten, Rotten, rotten, rotten, Rotten, rotten, rotten…
Winnifred: As the swamps of home.
Winnifred, Dauntless & Ladies: The swamps of home!

(source: https://www.lyricsondemand.com/soundtracks/o/onceuponamattresslyrics/swampsofhomelyrics.html )

Carol Burnett was the original Princess Fred

and you can hear her singing about her sort-of-happy homeland here:

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

I normally end by saying “Stay well”, these days, but perhaps it would be more appropriate to say

Stay dry,

And remember that there is always




“Bog-trotter” is thought to have originally been a slur on Irish country people.  As some of my ancestors were probably the very people slurred, I use the term to show that it can suggest something other than Celtic swamp monsters.


I apologize for the weird bracketing around the quotations from Beowulf. I don’t know what produces them, but I suspect that it might be connected to the magic spells which the poem says protect Grendel from weapons!

In the Sky, a Spy

Aragorn is uneasy. 

“Flocks of birds, flying at great speed, were wheeling and circling, and traversing all the land as if they were searching for something; and they were steadily drawing nearer…

‘Lie flat and still!’ hissed Aragorn, pulling Sam down into the shade of a holly-bush; for a whole regiment of birds had broken away suddenly from the main host, and came, flying low, straight towards the ridge…

Not until they had dwindled into the distance, north and west, and the sky was again clear would Aragorn rise.  Then he sprang up and went and wakened Gandalf.

‘Regiments of black crows are flying over all the land between the Mountains and the Greyflood…I think that they are spying out the land.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Ring Goes South”)

As always, welcome, dear readers.  I’ve often written about the relation between Tolkien’s experiences in our world and events in Middle-earth and, in this posting, instead of looking at the earth, we’ll be looking up, as Aragorn did and as Second Lieutenant Tolkien

 would have done in 1916, scanning the clouds for German scouts.

Both sides had begun to include aircraft in their practice warfare—maneuvers—from 1911 on.  The British had employed both airplanes and airships,

and, in the first weeks of war in 1914, it had been British scouting planes

which had spotted the masses of German troops

marching to outflank the British and French armies in what was called the Schlieffen Plan,

allowing the relatively small British Expeditionary Force to escape the trap set for them, although it took hard fighting

and hard marching to do it.

What gave the British the advantage in 1914 was something which had been imagined and wished for for centuries, at least from the days in which Leonardo da Vinci, as early as the 1490s, made intricate drawings of flying machines.

Nothing came of this until the late 18th century, when the Montgolfier brothers

first demonstrated their hot-air balloon in 1783. 

When the Revolution came and French armies were pressed to deal with a huge coalition of hostile European powers, a French balloon surveyed the scene at the Battle of Fleurus, 26 June, 1794

and served at a few other actions before being disbanded in 1799.

It doesn’t appear that much of anything military was done with what, if nothing else, would provide a superior (in more than one sense) observation platform until the American Civil War, where Thaddeus Lowe

a balloon enthusiast, took the Intrepid along on McClellan’s 1862 attempt to capture Richmond.

Although McClellan’s nerve failed him and the attempt in turn failed, Lowe’s balloon allowed observers to see what his army never did:  Richmond.

Lowe’s balloon saw very little service after the failed expedition and military ballooning seems to have been, with very limited exceptions, put on hold until the turn of the century, when the US Army took a balloon along on its expedition to Cuba, in the summer of 1898.

Although it did some service in observing the Spanish lines outside Santiago, it produced an unfortunate side-effect:  the balloon clearly indicated the presence of US troops and Spanish artillery shells quickly began to burst around its position.

And here we see a real difficulty with such balloons.  They may have made good observation posts, but they were immobile, once raised, and, even as they spied on the enemy, they could reveal their own army’s position at the same time. 

It was only with the advent of the airplane, at the very beginning of the 20th century,

that a more flexible method of spying from the air came to be employed and, with the movements of massive armies and then the construction of nearly 500 miles of trenches, from Switzerland to the North Sea in late 1914, into 1915,

it became imperative to have better ways of surveying those movements, as well as the many lines of fortifications both sides rapidly constructed.  The demands of a vast war accelerated creation and employment of such ways and soon aircraft were crisscrossing the sky, their cameras photographing everything on the ground below.

From such photos

elaborate maps were made,

allowing attack plans to be more sophisticated than ever before.  This, in fact, is the Schwaben Feste, the Schwaben Redoubt, which Tolkien’s own unit, the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers attacked during the terrible battle of the Somme, at the beginning of July, 1916. 

Flights of enemy aircraft overhead, then, might signal reconnaissance which would lead to attack. 

Suspecting that “regiments of crows”, as Aragorn says to Gandalf, are “spying out the land”, convinced Gandalf that they must be more careful in their movements:  we can be sure that hearing the sound of enemy aircraft overhead must have done the same for Second Lieutenant Tolkien.

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Stay well,

Keep your heads down,

And know that, as always, there’s



An Earful

Welcome, dear readers, as always.

In Terence’s play, Phormio, from 161BC, one character, Antipho, seems to another to have succeeded in fulfilling his fondest wish—but, on being congratulated, he replies:

“…immo, id quod aiunt, auribus teneo lupum.”

“…not at all—as the saying goes, I’ve got a wolf by the ears.”

(P. Terentius Afer—“Terence”, to us– (195/185-159BC?), Phormio, Act III, Scene 2—my translation)

And, recently, I feel like we’ve been almost up to our ears in wolves in these postings.  First, there was the Big Bad Wolf who caused such architectural mayhem among the local pigs,

and then others soon appeared in packs as wintry invaders of the Shire.

In both cases, wolves were villains, a tradition which must go back as early as when people huddled in caves—sometimes caves wolves themselves would like to have occupied.

And certainly, by Neolithic times, from about 10,000BC on, when people began to domesticate animals,

Neolithic shepherds

would have feared for their flocks.  Certainly we can imagine that Roman shepherds would have been anxious enough about them—perhaps that proverbial expression above was created by them–

and the earlier Roman dramatist, Plautus (c.254-184BC), even suggested that a person whom you don’t know yet might really be just such a dangerous predator:  “Lupus est homo homini, non homo, quom qualis sit non novit”—“A man is a wolf to a man, not a man,  whom you haven’t [yet] learned [just] what sort [of man] he may be”–that is, “Any man might really be a wolf, until you’ve understood his character.” (T. Maccius Plautus, Asinaria, Act 2, Scene 4, line 495—my translation)  

This philosophic idea, ironically, could even be extended into folklore:  the Romans believed in werewolves, or versipelles (wer-SIH-pell-ace)—literally, “skin-changers”.  One is described in mid-change by a character, Niceros, in Gaius Petronius Arbiter’s ( c.27-66AD) novel, Satyricon:

Venimus inter monimenta: homo meus coepit ad stelas facere; sedeo ego cantabundus et stelas numero. Deinde ut respexi ad comitem, ille exuit se et omnia vestimenta secundum viam posuit. Mihi anima in naso esse; stabam tanquam mortuus. At ille circumminxit vestimenta sua, et subito lupus factus est.

Niceros is walking outside town, where the Romans customarily built their cemeteries. 

Because it’s night and he’s nervous, he’s brought along a companion, a large soldier, for protection.  This turned out to be a less than perfect choice:

“We came among the tombstones.  My companion began to read the inscriptions on the stones.  I, full of song, was sitting and counting the stones.  And then, as I looked back at my companion, he stripped himself and put all his clothing next to the road.  My heart was in my mouth—I was standing stiff as a dead man.  Then he peed in a circle around his clothes and, suddenly, he became a wolf!”  (Satyricon, Section 62—my translation.  If you don’t know Petronius’ weird and interesting work, here’s a LINK to a translation from 1930:  https://sacred-texts.com/cla/petro/satyr/index.htmf  There are more modern translations,. of course, but this has the advantage of being linked, in turn, to the Latin text—as well as being free!)

Ancient wolves must have been fearsome by themselves,

but wolves are pack hunters, who employ sophisticated tactics to deal with those they hunt, following herds of grazing animals and assessing them before beginning the actual chase.

(For more on these frighteningly intelligent stalkers, see:   https://www.livingwithwolves.org/how-wolves-hunt/  )

This fact, however, brings us back to the Romans, but in a completely different way.  Although wolves were feared as skillful predators, they might also be admired—as skillful predators–and the Romans, who always knew a good symbol when they saw one, adopted the wolf as part of their foundation mythology.

If you are an up-and-coming military power, but who began as a random collection of farmers’ and shepherds’ huts on a few little hills,

how can you suggest to the world that you are much more than that?  And here is where the wolves come in.

First off, you consider who your founders’—in this case, Romulus and Remus’–parents were.  In a male-dominated world, mothers are less important, but at least their mother, Rhea Silvia, was:

a. a princess, daughter of Numitor, the king of Alba Longa, descended from Aeneas, the Trojan refugee considered the ultimate founder

b. a Vestal Virgin—the holiest of Roman women, keeper of the hearth in the temple of Vesta, which symbolized all of the hearths—and therefore all of the homes—of Rome

She, in turn, having had an encounter with Mars, the god of war,

produced the twins, Romulus and Remus, but, when their wicked uncle, Amulius, overthrew his brother, Numitor, and took the throne, he tried to insure that there would be no dynastic problems in the future by ordering a servant to deal with the boys.  The servant, tender-hearted (you recognize him, perhaps, from the huntsman who can’t kill Snow White?),

put them in a basket, instead, and set it to float on the River Tiber (and another familiar scene, perhaps?  Moses in the rushes?).

They are nudged to shore, where they are found by a mother wolf who has recently lost her cubs and the rest, as they say, is mythology–

but such powerful mythology.  Rome’s founders’ father is the god of war.  Rome’s founders’ foster mother is a wolf:  an intelligent, well-organized predator, which is the terror of the countryside.  With those parents in mind, perhaps it would have been wise for the world beyond Rome to realize that, soon, it would be holding their own wolf by the ears?

Thanks for reading, as always,

Stay well,

And remember that, as ever, there will be




For more on wolves in mythology, start here:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolves_in_folklore,_religion_and_mythology

For recent research on those early wolves—the so-called Canis Dirus—see: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2021/1/26/2010776/-Hidden-History-The-Dire-Wolf-The-Big-Bad-Wolf-Was-Not-Really-a-Wolf-After-All

On Thin Ice

Welcome, dear readers, as always.

This posting is an example of…fan-tasy fiction, I’d guess.  I’ve always thought that it was good for people to admire a writer so much that they wanted to write in her/his style, or use her/his characters in a new adventure.  On the one hand, it can help in the development of a writer’s own style, and, on the other, it can, perhaps, produce something fresh about people I’ve followed through books. For myself, I would certainly like to know how Eowyn was trained as a shield maiden, for example, or what happened to Long John Silver after he escaped from Treasure Island, or why Sherlock Holmes, in retirement, really took up beekeeping! 

It’s becoming real winter here in the northern US, with some snowfall about once a week or so, and, probably from reading too much 19th-century Russian fiction, I always imagine moonlight and wolves at this time of year.

Unfortunately, we don’t actually have local wolves, but we do have coyotes,  a pack of which I heard just the other night,

and snow and coyote calls, brought to mind this detail from “The Ring Goes South”:

“No living hobbit (save Bilbo) could remember the Fell Winter of 1311, when white wolves invaded the Shire over the frozen Brandywine.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3)

So, I thought, the Baranduin can freeze.  And, if it can freeze, but there aren’t any white wolves, what might you do with it?  Clearly some hobbits thought there was fun to be had there in warmer weather—until it went all wrong, as Gaffer Gamgee tells it:

“And Mr. Drogo was staying at Brandy Hall…and he went out boating on the Brandywine River; and he and his wife were drownded, and poor Mr. Frodo only a child and all.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”)

Although the Gaffer’s Hobbiton audience disapproves, it seems that the “queer folk” along the river thought that “messing about in boats”, as Ratty refers to the sport in the first chapter of The Wind in the Willows,

was a perfectly normal activity.

So, putting together:

a. the river being capable of freezing

b. hobbits having fun on the river,

I wondered:  perhaps they could have winter entertainment on the water, as well?

As far as I currently know, there is no reference in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings to ice skating,

but, as I said at the opening, this is a bit of fan-tasy, so why not?

Because so much of Middle-earth is based upon events and details of our world, and, in particular, of our medieval world, I thought that perhaps I might find historical authority for speeding across the ice here, if I could discover no scriptural authority there.

If, dear readers, you’ve ever learned to skate, you won’t be surprised to learn that what appears to be one of the earliest illustrations of ice skating, which dates from 1498, is this–

from a biography of Saint Lidwine (or Lydwine–you see both spellings), 1380-1433, of Schiedam, in the Netherlands.  (She was actually knocked over by someone else who came barreling up behind her.)

But skating, it turns out, is much older than 1498.  In fact, the earliest skates appear to date from about 1800BC, from Finland.  Although these are a later archaeological discovery, from Viking Dublin, they probably looked something like this—

Certainly nothing like modern ice skates,

and the technique for using them was also very different, as we can see from this 1539 Swedish map.

Instead of using their legs to move them along, as modern skaters do, early skaters poled themselves.  Here’s a LINK to a very interesting article about one man’s experiments in trying to figure out how to fashion such skates and to use them:  http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/daily_living/text/ice_skates.htm

The skates themselves were made of horse or cow bones and, rather than cutting into the ice, slid across it. 

The first use of metal blades appears to date from about the 13th century and to come from the area of the Netherlands.  Here’s an illustration from a psalter (collection of psalms) made in Ghent in the 1320-30s.

(This is from Ms.Douce 5,  in the collection of the Bodleian Library at Oxford.  It has many wonderful illustrations—there’s someone sledding on the same page—as you can see for yourself, if you follow this LINK:   https://medieval.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/catalog/manuscript_4476 )

You can see that poor St Lidwine was using these later skates when she had her accident.

Such skates clearly also changed the method of propulsion, from a pole to a leg, and seem to have added another reason for skating from simple movement across icy ponds and down frozen streams to having fun on the ice, as these late-Renaissance Dutch paintings show.

The first book in English on skating was published in 1772:  Robert Jones, A Treatise On Skating, with a number of editions up to the 1850s, but, to look at these two portraits, Gilbert Stuart’s “Portrait of William Grant” (1782)

and Henry Raeburn’s “The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch” (1790’s—and there’s some discussion about Raeburn being the artist—see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Skating_Minister )

skating had become as popular an entertainment in the UK as it had been in the Renaissance Netherlands. 

And so, in my fun-fan-tasy, I’m imagining those rascals, Merry and Pippin, joining others along the frozen Brandywine to slap on their skates—the metal variety—to zoom across the ice, perhaps to the disapproval of the Gaffer and his cronies in The Ivy Bush, when they hear of such behavior among those “queer folk” in Buckland.

Thanks for reading, as always,

Stay well—be sure to test the ice beforehand—

And trust that there will be




I case you haven’t read that last Sherlock Holmes adventure in which he has taken to bee-keeping,

here’s a LINK:  https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/His_Last_Bow.-_The_War_Service_of_Sherlock_Holmes

Pigs is Pigs?

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

In my last, I began to talk about pigs in early Western literature, from Herakles’ capture of the Erymanthian Boar

to the Kalydonian Boar Hunt,

to the scar on Odysseus’ thigh, which almost got him killed when it was discovered by his old nurse, Eurykleia.

In all of these stories, the pig in question is a wild boar and hunting it down was both an heroic sport and a form of pest-control.

There was so much material, however—much more than I could use in a whole series on pigs—that I thought that I would add a second posting to take the story a bit farther.

If you do your own research—and I hope that you will—you will find that there are all sorts of theories about the importance of the boar in the world of the early Indo-Europeans, and the Celts, in particular, but, practically speaking, the main importance for such people was this—

(For several interesting postings on the subject of boars and symbolism, see:

https://balkancelts.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/merida-cult-add.jpg?w=820   and  https://wordandsilence.com/2017/07/28/dont-be-such-a-boar/  

Apologies, by the way, to any reader who is a vegetarian or vegan, which is why I selected this authentic historical illustration.)

Pigs supplied a major source of protein for anyone who kept them.  The meat was also, as I understand it, easy to preserve, either by smoking

or salting,

and, in a world before refrigeration, such preserved meat would be crucial for surviving winter in northern climates.

(We take salt for granted, but in earlier times, salt was an extremely important and valuable commodity.  One source of power for the early Romans, in fact, was that their settlement, on those seven hills, potentially controlled a ford across the Tiber over which ran the Via Salaria, the Salt Road, which led inland from the salt pans on the west coast of Italy.)

It’s not surprising, then, that pig was the preferred food of heroes.  The warriors carried by the Valkyries to Valhalla were said to be fed by Saehrimnir, a boar who could be killed, consumed, and reborn every day as the main course in feasts.

And, in the Irish world, their heroes could come to all-out warfare over the carving and distribution of Mac Datho’s pig.

(This is a wonderful, weird story—like so many Old Irish stories–and the first one I studied when I began to learn Old Irish.  Here’s a LINK to an early translation by A.H. Leahy (1857-1928) so that you can enjoy it yourself:  https://sejh.pagesperso-orange.fr/keltia/version-en/datho2-en.html  )

By ingesting the boar, we might imagine that heroes believed that they acquired something of its power.  By putting it on their helmets, as is not only mentioned in Beowulf (see lines 1326-1328), but for which we have archaeological evidence,

perhaps Anglo-Saxon (and Celtic) warriors thought that they could add a little of the menace that boars in the wild could convey.

You only have to look at the kind of spear used in hunting them to see what those who did feared—

When a boar attacked, it would continue attacking, even if it ran onto your spear, which is why there is that crosspiece below the head:  to try to stop if from getting any closer!

Pigs might feed heroes, but pigs themselves need feeding.  They are omnivores who, in the wild, spend their days consuming what lies on the ground or digging into it.

In feudal western Europe, one could have pannage, which is the right to graze pigs on common land.

Pigs were turned out in late summer/early autumn, when many of the trees were shedding their fruit, like hazel and acorn.

Here we see two farm workers assisting the trees—and the pigs.

In later autumn, they were rounded up and slaughtered, most of the meat probably being preserved for winter, but a certain amount being put aside for the traditional turn-of-the-season feast, around the end of October—the holiday we still celebrate here in the US as Halloween.

If pigs were that important, both heroically and historically, perhaps pig-keepers were, as well?  Certainly, in the Old Irish story of “The Quarrel of the Two Pig Keepers”, Friuch and Rucht, the two keepers, are not only attached to royal households, but have a knowledge of magical arts, being shape-shifters, who eventually battle each other in various forms until they are finally trapped in the bodies of two bulls.  (To learn more about this, here’s a link to Lady Gregory’s 1902 translation, Cuchulain of Muirthemnehttps://archive.org/details/cuchulainofmuirt00greg_0/page/268/mode/2up   Turn to page 268 and read on.)

Which brings us to the title of this posting:  if pig-keepers aren’t always pig-keepers, at least in the Old Irish story, are pigs necessarily always pigs?  In Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series,

which is based upon Welsh versions of Celtic myth, we have two characters who aren’t quite what they seem.  The first is Taran, a foundling, appointed by his master, Dallben (that’s DATH-ben, with the double ll sounding a bit like a lisp out of the side of your mouth), as Assistant Pig-Keeper.  By the end of the series, we—and Taran—discover that he is, in fact, the heir to the throne of Prydain (sorry for the spoiler, but the books are so good that it hardly matters).  As Assistant Pig-Keeper, Taran has only one pig, Hen Wen (“Old Whitey” from hen, “old” and gwyn, “white”?), who, like Taran, is not what she appears to be but is an “oracular pig”:  that is, a pig who can sense the future, which she conveys using a bundle of letter sticks.

From threat to food source to symbol of power to agent of prophecy—what else might an ambitious pig be or do?

As always, thanks for reading,

Stay well,

And know that, as ever, there is




The first image, of Herakles and the Boar, is a cast bronze by Giambologna (jahm-boh-LOE-nya), actually Jean de Boulogne (1529-1608).

In his time, he was a famous and influential sculptor, but equally known for his work in bronze.  There are lots of images available on-line of his marble work and his bronzes, but my favorites are his wonderful cast bronzes of animals and birds, a group of which I saw in Florence some years ago.   Here’s a particular favorite–

It’s a Boar

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

Pigs have had a prominent place in Western literature for many centuries.  In my first encounter with them, they were deeply interested in architectural experimentation and predator control.

One built a house of straw, a second a house of sticks, the third a house of bricks, as in the illustration.  Needless to say, when a wolf with very strong lungs arrived, he blew down the first and second houses, dealt with the residents, but failed against the third.

In case you don’t know this story, commonly called “The Three Little Pigs” in English (and that’s just one name for it—see this LINK for various versions– https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0124.html#halliwell ) here’s a standard telling, from Andrew Lang’s 1892 The Green Fairy Book: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/33571/33571-h/33571-h.htm

Although there are claims that the story is older, the earliest versions I’ve seen so far all date from the 19th century.  There’s a somewhat odd one from 1853, to be found in English Forests and Forest Trees:  Historical, Legendary, and Descriptive, 189-190, in which the three pigs have been replaced by three pixies.  (“Pigsy” is a variant spelling for “pixie”, so perhaps that’s where the confusion came in. Here’s a link to English Forests, in case you’d like to see the story in context:  https://archive.org/details/englishforestsa01unkngoog )

Pigs themselves, however, appear at the very beginnings of Western literature, where we see Herakles dealing with a very large member of the species, the Erymanthian Boar, as one of his Labors.

(The person in the pot is his relative, Eurystheus, king of Tiryns, who has been given the job of devising and supervising the labors of Heracles, which are supposed to be a kind of penance for Herakles’ earlier murder of his first wife and their children–oh—and pulling his house down around them, as well.

Needless to say, he quickly comes to regret his appointment, taking refuge in this pottery bunker whenever word comes to him that Herakles has returned with a new trophy.)

And, in the case of a wild boar, perhaps he was wise to do so.  The modern variety

can weigh over 600 pounds (272kg), is fast on his feet, and is said to be extremely intelligent. 

Here’s the view of a 14th-century AD hunter on the subject:

“. It is the beast of this world that is strongest armed, and can sooner slay a man than any other. Neither is there any beast that he could not slay if they were alone sooner than that other beast could slay him, be they lion or leopard, unless they should leap upon his back, so that he could not turn on them with his teeth. And there is neither lion nor leopard that slayeth a man at one stroke as a boar doth, for they mostly kill with the raising of their claws and through biting, but the wild boar slayeth a man with one stroke as with a knife, and therefore he can slay any other beast sooner than they could slay him.”

(The Master of Game, primarily an early 15th-century English translation by Edward Duke of York of Gaston Phebus’ Livre de Chasse, written in the late 1380s.  For a modern edition and all that is said about boars, see this link:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43452/43452-h/43452-h.htm#CHAPTER_VI)

Besides weight and speed, the killing weapon, as described above, is the tusk—

Our second view of a boar is from the Kalydonian Boar Hunt.

This illustration is from the neck of the well-known early 6th-century BC “Francois Vase” (actually a large volute krater or mixing bowl—Greeks, at least at parties, usually mixed their wine with water).  One of a number of epic stories, like the attack on Troy, which brought in many famous heroes, it all happened because the king of Kalydon in western mainland Greece, neglected to make a sacrifice to Artemis.

(Here she is, with her twin, Apollo.)

In return, Artemis, as the mistress of wild animals,

sent a boar to terrorize the land and destroy the crops.  As boars’ method of grazing rips up the landscape,

this was probably even more serious than the direct threat of porcine violence.  Hunters gathered from all over the ancient Greek world (many of them are named on the vase) and, although the boar was ultimately killed, Artemis’ vengeance continued as a quarrel broke out over who would claim the carcass and this led to a civil war.

It’s no wonder, then, that the proto-Greeks, whom we call the Myceneans, would manufacture a piece of what I would suggest is trophy-armor, a leather cap covered in boars’ tusks.

As teeth dry out and become brittle after leaving the gums, I doubt that this would have provided much protection in battle, but it would certainly have backed up a warrior’s claim to being a more-than-capable hunter.

Odysseus himself, is given one of these in Book 10 of the Iliad

“And Meriones gave to Odysseus a bow and quiver

And sword, and put a cap around his head

Made of hide.  It was pulled tightly inside with many straps

And outside the white tusks of a shining-tooth boar

Were well and skillfully held close together…”

(The Iliad, Book 10, 260-265, my translation)

And Odysseus had good cause for being glad that at least one boar had contributed his tusks:  when Odysseus was a teenager, he had gone on a hunt with his grandfather, Autolykos, and a boar had ripped open his thigh,

leaving a scar which was visible many years later.  This scar provided evidence which was handy in helping to prove that he was Odysseus, when he had secretly returned to Ithaka after 20 years away, but had almost proved the end of his secret—and perhaps of him—when it was identified by his old nurse, Eurykleia, who, in her surprise, was only blocked by Odysseus’ quick reaction from revealing his identity.

In The Odyssey, there is another approach to dealing with swine, however.  Circe the sorceress, who has a menagerie of one-time savage beasts already,

has no need to hunt them when, with a magic drink and a tap of her staff,

she can have as many pigs as she wants, with no risk at all—to herself.

At least at first…

There’s more to be said, but, lest we pig out on the subject (sorry!), I’ll continue this in my next posting, where we’ll move from the Classical world to the medieval.

In the meantime,

Thanks, as ever, for reading,

Stay well,

And know that, as always, there’s



Take a Letter!

Welcome, dear readers, as ever and Happy New Year (for those who follow the Gregorian Calendar).

Vlad the Impaler has turned up more than once in this blog.

He does so primarily because he is the wonderfully menacing villain of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula.

I’ve now taught this book several times and it always seems to catch student attention—not surprising, even considering the denser language of late Victorian fiction and the sometimes outdated social  attitudes, since the basic story, that the equivalent of a combination of highly-intelligent predator

and virus

has plans to invade England and to use the first-class railway system

to spread his infection, is so well handled that it still seems disturbing even now, 123 years after its initial publication–and further proof of this is that it’s never been out of print in its history.

Each time I teach it, something different always pops out.  This time, it was just how much of Dracula’s ultimate defeat is owed to the daily work of Victorian offices.

This might seem very odd, at first.  Imagine the terrifying Terminator

or the saliva-dripping Alien

destroyed by a color copier.

And it requires more than such work to put an end to the vampire and his designs—stakes

and Bowie knives

a Gurkha kukri,

and even Winchester rifles,

but major weapons in the campaign are this

and this

and this.

The novel begins, in fact, with the first of these.  The first protagonist we meet is Jonathan Harker, a clerk for an English attorney, on his way in a public coach, called a “diligence”,

to meet a client, a nobleman who lives deep in the mountains of Transylvania.

He keeps a journal—in shorthand, a page of which might look like this:

Shorthand has a very long history in the West.  The earliest mention I can find is in Plutarch’s (c46-119AD) life of Cato the Younger ( 95-46BC) , where it is said that the only one of his Senate speeches survives because the Consul, Cicero (106-43BC),

had  stationed shorthand writers in the Senate, who took down the speech as it was spoken (Plutarch, Life of Cato the Younger, Section 23, Paragraph 3—if you’d like to read this for yourself, here’s a LINK to the whole text—just scroll down to the appropriate section:  https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Cato_Minor*.html )

There is, as is so often the case with ancient details, a good deal of discussion, both in the classical world and among later scholars, about how this shorthand came into being.  One possibility was that it came through Cicero’s secretary (and slave), Tiro, and the practice, which included increasingly long lists of symbols, called “Tironian notes”, continued  in one form or other up through the Renaissance. 

The first modern system for English-speakers was created by John Byrom (1692-1763).

Instead of being based upon a huge collection of symbols, Byrom’s system was based upon capturing sounds—here’s a 1730s journal entry by him using his method.

His method became a common one after its posthumous publication in 1767 as The Universal English Short-Hand

with a rival in that of Samuel Taylor’s 1786 An Essay Intended to Establish a Standard for a Universal System of Stenography, or Short-hand Writing, which appears to have overtaken and replaced Byrom’s method.

And I imagine that this was the system which the young Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

taught himself so that he could get his first writing job—as a Parliamentary debate reporter.

In time, however, this method was replaced by that invented by Sir Isaac Pitman (1813-1897)

first published in 1837.

Not only does Jonathan keep a diary in shorthand, but his wife-to-be, Mina, tells us in a letter to her friend, Lucy Westenra, that she has been studying and practicing it as well,  so that

 “When we are married I shall be able to be useful to Jonathan, and if I can stenograph well enough I can take down what he wants to say in this way and write it out for him on the typewriter, at which also I am practising very hard.” (Dracula, Chapter V—if you want to follow along, here’s a LINK to the text I’m using—it’s the 1897 American edition, available at Gutenberg:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/345/345-h/345-h.htm )

We see here two of the elements I mentioned earlier, shorthand and the typewriter. 

Unlike shorthand, typewriters were relatively new in 1897.  Although there had been earlier tries at its invention, the first commercially practical machine was patented in 1868

and was first manufactured in 1873.

The third element appears a little later in time as well as in Chapter V, where we meet another major character, Dr Seward, who is the director of an asylum and keeps his diary on what he calls a “phonograph”.

This is what we now call a “Dictaphone” and was the offspring of two remarkable 19th-century inventors, Thomas Edison (1847-1931)

and Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)

Although Edison invented sound recording, it was Bell who created the first viable medium, the wax cylinder,

which Bell then employed in the 1880s for a business function:  recording thoughts on such cyclinders—

which could then be listened to and transcribed by a secretary onto paper—with pen or typewriter.

So, knowing a little something about these office weapons, how are they used in the book?

As readers, our first knowledge of Dracula comes from Jonathan Harker’s journal, which, as we’ve seen, was written in shorthand.  We also know that Mina, who will become Harker’s wife, practices shorthand herself, and can type.  After Harker’s eventual escape from the Count’s castle, he hands his journal to Mina, and, eventually, she reads it—and does something more.  When another character, and a very important one, Professor Van Helsing, seeking information, comes to visit Mina and her now-husband, she says to him:

“If you will let me, I shall give you a paper to read. It is long, but I have typewritten it out. It will tell you my trouble and Jonathan’s. It is the copy of his journal when abroad, and all that happened. I dare not say anything of it; you will read for yourself and judge.” (Dracula, Chapter 14)

Mina adds to this a copy of her own diary, kept at the time when she and her friend, Lucy, are at Whitby, on the northeastern English coast, and Lucy is first attacked by Dracula.  In time, she will do something more:  listen to, and transcribe the wax cyclinders of Dr Seward’s diary–

“He accordingly set the phonograph at a slow pace, and I began to typewrite from the beginning of the seventh cylinder. I used manifold, and so took three copies of the diary, just as I had done with all the rest.” (Dracula, Chapter XVII)

Seward had treated Lucy as she fell under Dracula’s influence and, when he was baffled by what was happening to her, called in his former teacher, Professor Van Helsing and, with Mina’s professional skill, what he had seen and experienced then became part of the on-going record of Dracula and his activities.

“Manifold” is what we would call “carbon paper”, a method which allows a typist to make multiple copies simultaneously and which is sometimes still used to make copies of receipts.

This will be especially useful when Dracula enters Dr Seward’s asylum, attacks Mina (again) and tries to destroy all records of himself:

“ ‘All the manuscript had been burned, and the blue flames were flickering amongst the white ashes; the cylinders of your phonograph too were thrown on the fire, and the wax had helped the flames.” Here I interrupted. “Thank God there is the other copy in the safe!’ “ (Dracula, Chapter XXI)

What Mina has done, then, is to provide, through her office skills, as complete a record as can be constructed of Dracula’s aims and actions, not only in England, but through Jonathan’s journal, at his lair, the castle in Transylvania.

Bran Castle illuminated in rural landscape, Bran, Brasov, Romania

(This is Bran castle, which some believe may have been a model for Stoker.)

With it, Van Helsing has learned so much that, as he plans further action against the vampire, he will say of her:

“ “Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has man’s brain—a brain that a man should have were he much gifted—and a woman’s heart.’ “ (Dracula, Chapter XVIII)

Add to that a typist’s sure fingers.

Thanks, as ever, for reading,

Stay well,

And know that, as always there’s




As ever, dear readers, welcome.

Back in early November, I wrote a posting which explored the idea of how Bilbo had “learned [Sam] his letters”. 

Because Middle-earth is a place which roughly mirrors the Western Middle Ages, I imagined that Bilbo had begun with the equivalent of the Roman alphabet, Tengwar, and Sam had practiced saying and writing the letters.  In earlier times, just as literate people were many fewer in the West until the 19th century, material for writing was often hard to come by.  Scriptoria (medieval writing centers in ecclesiastical establishments)

used prepared animal skins—parchment–for copying older works and writing new ones.

Our paper, made from wood pulp, is a 19th-century invention, created as a replacement for its predecessor, paper made from rags.  The earlier paper had been invented by the Chinese about 100AD, only reaching the West, via the Islamic world, by the 12th century.

As literacy grew rapidly in the West in the 19th century and printing methods improved, the demand for the older rag paper outpaced supply.  This brought on a shortage and it seems that wood pulp paper was produced as a cheaper and more plentiful substitute.  With our medieval view of Middle-earth, then, we can expect that Bilbo, being wealthy, could afford as much parchment as he wanted, but we can also expect that, like medieval students, as they learned their letters, Sam might have used a cheaper and easily-renewable resource:   a slate and chalk,

or another tool, handed down from the Classical world,

the diptych of wax-covered board and stilus.

We might see another part of what we can imagine was Sam’s education in something he does on the long journey into Mordor:

“Sam stood up, putting his hands behind his back (as he always did when ‘speaking poetry’), and began…”—his poem being that about the “oliphaunt”.  (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 3, “The Black Gate is Closed”)

Medieval schoolrooms, for all that they were situated in places which often had strict rules about speech and silence, must have been relatively noisy places.  First, because books were copied by hand, which took time, and the materials were somewhat expensive, there would have been few of them–perhaps, in fact, only one copy of the text and that in the hands of the master, who would have read the text to be studied aloud, while the students took notes—like Sam, on slate or tablet.

Second, because, unlike the modern idea of reading:  eyes scanning the page, mouth tightly shut,

Western people all the way back to the Greeks, whose alphabet, derived from the Phoenician, forms the basis of the Roman writing system which, in turn, forms the basis of the system I’m writing this posting in, customarily read everything aloud.  They would begin to do this from their days learning the letters

and continue throughout their lives.

In fact, monastery schools, like that of St Gall in what is now western Switzerland,

taught not only how to make sense of the letters, words and sentences, but how to deliver a text publicly.  This was important in worship services,

but it was also employed during mealtimes, when one of the monks would be given the job of reading some religious work aloud while the others ate.

 There were strict standards for public reading and so early drill was intense and texts might even carry conventional signs to indicate things like correct pronunciation, where it was appropriate to raise or lower the voice, and where and how to end a passage.

A schoolroom, then, would be filled with voices, those of the master reading and commenting and correcting, those of the students reciting and repeating what they’d been taught—just like Sam and his “speaking poetry”. 

It’s not known why people began to read silently, although there is lots of theory and scholarly argument on the subject.  Certainly it seems to be true that, somewhere perhaps in the later 17th century, the custom had changed. 

This isn’t to say that, by the way, that everyone from the beginning had conformed to the custom.  In a famous passage in his autobiography (Book 6, Chapter 3), St Augustine (354-430AD)

 describes his bishop in Milan, St Ambrose (c340-397AD),

as a silent reader.  Scholars have seen this from two directions, depending on what they want to say about the act of reading.  Some say that this suggests that it wasn’t unusual for at least some people to read to themselves.  Others, however, say that St Augustine mentions it because it seems so odd.  For myself, I suspect that it’s the latter, but, not being so well-versed in both texts and arguments as such scholars, I would claim that this is no more than a hunch on my part.

Although there is academic argument over silent versus aloud, I’ve recently been rereading a fantasy novel in which, for some people, it’s actually dangerous for them to read aloud.  This is Inkheart (Tintenherz  in the original German),

published in 2003, and written by Cornelia Funke.        

In time, she has added two more novels to this, Inkspell (Tintenblut—why the title change, I don’t know) 2005, and Inkdeath (Tintentod) 2007.  (She now promises a fourth volume, Die Farbe der RacheThe Color of Revenge—to be published next October.)

These are books all about the love of books and the adventures you can find in them—and the peril if they become too real, a major theme being that there are certain people in the world whose ability to read a book—specifically a novel—is so magical that they can actually bring characters out of books—and send people into them (a sort of literary cosmic balance).

Needless to say, I recommend them to you, along with an earlier novel, Herr der Diebe (The Thief Lord )

published in Germany in 2000 and in an English translation in 2002.

But—at this moment, it’s almost Christmas—or, if you prefer, the Feast of Sol Invictus, or that which Bilbo and Gandalf celebrate with Beorn, Yule, and, while I continue to read, I’m in hopes that someone else has read something of mine and, following that list, is bringing a pile of treats on his epic trip Thursday night flight.  (He can’t be scanning my list—that one’s much too short!)

Because this blog has readers from around the world, perhaps the best wish that I can make is that the new year brings peace and health throughout the world for everyone.

In the meantime,

Thanks, as always for reading, stay well,

And trust that, in the last week of the old year, there will be




I would also recommend the films made from The Thief Lord (2006)

and Inkheart (2008).

Both do a very good job of providing you with a visual context for their respective books, as well as employing actors who do a convincing job of being their characters.