Orc Arsenal.2


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So, dear readers, welcome, as always.  In this posting, we want to finish our brief overview of orc weaponry which we began in our last.

A famous military illustrator, Angus McBride, (1931-2007)


once said in an interview that there was one thing which he hated about doing such illustrations:  painting chain mail, which he said was the most tedious part of his work.  Considering that he painted it on early Celts


and Renaissance Irish,


and Republican Romans


and medieval Russians,


McBride must have suffered many hours of boredom!  It didn’t stop him, however, as we see in these illustrations for The Lord of the Rings,




from putting armor on Rohirrim and orcs alike.

Chain mail—or simply mail—is made by linking together a series of metal rings.



This is, as you can imagine, a very time-consuming process, especially if you have to make the rings first.  (Here’s a LINK on mail manufacturing, in case you’d like to try it yourself.)

We have seen the number of rings used in a full mail hauberk to be over 20,000, so it’s also metal-consuming, as well as time-consuming.  It also appears to have been expensive.  We once heard an expert say something about the “same price as a two-bedroom house”, but that seems a little excessive.  The always-useful Regia Anglorum website gives the price of a mail shirt in Anglo-Saxon times at 529d (that’s 529 pence), or 10,580 pounds in modern UK money ($13,785.18 US at today’s current exchange rate).  Here’s a LINK to their web page to see the author’s reasoning for his equivalences.

McBride shows orcs wearing mail—does JRRT?   In fact, in the first scene in which we see orcs, we read:

“…a huge orc-chieftain, almost man-high, clad in black mail from head to foot…” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-dum”

And, late in the story, when Sam and Frodo are in Mordor and Sam provides clothes for Frodo:

“There were long hairy breeches of some unclean beast-fell, and a tunic of dirty leather.  He drew them on.  Over the tunic went a coat of stout ring-mail, short for a full-sized orc, too long for Frodo and heavy.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”)

(We can attest to the weight of such a coat, by the way, having a modern reproduction ourselves.  It weighs 25 pounds or more—that’s 11.34 kilograms.  When it’s on your shoulders, the weight is displaced, so it doesn’t feel quite so heavy, but, if you have it piled in a box, you really feel the heft.  We would also add that, because of the cost, armor wasn’t commonly left on the battlefield.  This segment of the Bayeux Tapestry shows what must normally have happened.)


McBride, in his illustrations, depicts two other types of body armor.  In these first two depictions, we see the kind of armor the Romans called lorica segmentata.



This is a system based upon a series of broad, overlapping iron strips.



As far as we can tell, this is never mentioned in the text. There may be one mention of our third type:


This is armor made up of a series of small plates, called lamellae, sewn in an overlapping fashion, rather like fish scales.


There may be one mention of this:

“The orcs hindered by the mires that lay before the hills halted and poured their arrows into the defending ranks.  But through them came striding up, roaring like beasts, a great company of hill-trolls out of Gorgoroth.  Taller and broader than Men they were, and they were clad only in close-fitting mesh of horny scale, or maybe that was their hideous hide…” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 10, “The Black Gate Opens”)

But what about helmets?

McBride depicts most of his orcs in something which might be described as wild variations on the later medieval helmet called a sallet.



You can see John Mollo, a costume designer for Star Wars, having fun with this pattern, too.



In the text, in that first scene in which we see orcs, there is a mention of Aragorn’s sword, Anduril, which “came down upon [an orc’s] helm”, but nothing more specific—and that’s true for the second mention, when Aragorn examines the orcs killed by by Boromir:

“…on the front of their iron helms was set an S-rune, wrought of some white metal.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 1, “The Departure of Boromir”)

There is a bit more detail in this description:

“Sam brought several orc-helmets.  One of them fitted Frodo well enough, a black cap with iron rim, and iron hoops covered with leather upon which the Evil Eye was painted in red above the beaklike nose-guard.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”)

To us, this sounds like a kind of spangenhelm, the sort of thing the Normans wear in the Bayeux Tapestry.



To which we can add a couple of types of shields.  The first we see—it’s that same “orc-chieftain”—carries “a huge hide shield” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-dum”).  There is no further description.  If it’s only made of hide, this could resemble anything from a Mycenaean “figure-of-eight” shield



to a Mycenaean “tower” shield


to a Zulu shield.


The hill-trolls of Gorgoroth, mentioned above for their possible lamellar armor, are said to carry “round bucklers huge and black” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 10, “The Black Gate Opens”).

A huge buckler, however, is a contradiction in terms, as bucklers are, by definition, small—more a kind of one-on-one fencing defense, as we see in this illustration.


Like their helmets, orc shields commonly carry the sign of their master, Saruman or Sauron—“Upon their shields they bore a strange device” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 1, “The Departure of Boromir”).  (Some of Saruman’s followers, however, seem to have unmarked shields, as the attackers of Helm’s Deep are described as “some squat and broad, some tall and grim, with high helms and sable shields”—The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 7, “Helm’s Deep”)  This can also be useful if you’re the authorities and you want to catch deserters, as Sam and Frodo find out when they’re trapped by a column of orcs on the road in Mordor:

“Then suddenly one of the slave-drivers spied the two figures by the road-side…He took a step towards them, and even in the gloom he recognized the devices on their shields.  ‘Deserting, eh?’ he snarled.” ( The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 2, “The Land of Shadow”)


This i.d.-ing leads us towards our next posting:  Heraldry and Serial Numbers, where we’ll see more of orcs and others, too.

Thanks, as always, for reading.




Orc Arsenal.1


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

“The great shadow descended like a falling cloud.  And behold! It was a winged creature…

Upon it sat a shape, black-mantled, huge and threatening…A great black mace he wielded.”

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

This is clearly a scene which has caught the attention, over the years, of many artists, starting, we’d guess, with the Hildebrandts.



Then others, like Angus McBride and Ted Nasmith,



And Alan Lee and John Howe,



as well as many very good artists whom we don’t know by name—



Of these, all but Lee and the unknown sixth artist follow JRRT’s description more or less closely.  Number 6—it’s a little unclear– but he might be carrying a war hammer of some sort,


rather than a mace.



(These last two are basic patterns of a mace.)

The Lee is, well, we’re not sure what it seems to be.  It sort of looks like a battle axe


but also like what was called a “morning star”,


which should, we think, belong to the flail family.



This rather fits in with the P Jackson image, shown in this model (and note that sword—definitely not in the original description—which is in his other hand).


This difference made us curious about the weapons the Rohirrim—and the Gondorians—face and, in particular, those of the orcs.  The Hildebrandts



provide us with odd-looking spears and what might appear to be scimitars



but might be the suggestion of a medieval sword called a falchion.


McBride, who spent much of his artistic career illustrating military subjects, gives us weapons (mostly) less fanciful.




and Howe


veer between the practical and the fantastic and the films clearly follow them—


How does JRRT describe the orc weaponry?

The first armed orc we see appears in Moria:

“His broad flat face was swart, his eyes were like coals, and his tongue was red; he wielded a great spear…Sam, with a cry, hacked at the spear-shaft, and it broke.  But even as the orc flung down the truncheon and swept out his scimitar…” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-dum”)

The orcs who pursue the Fellowship through Moria have similar weapons:

“Beyond the fire he saw swarming black figures:  there seemed to be hundreds of orcs.  They brandished spears and scimitars which shone red as blood in the firelight.”

After the death of Boromir, however, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas find a different kind of orc:

“There were four goblin-soldiers of greater stature, swart, slant-eyed, with thick legs and large hands.  They were armed with short broad-bladed swords, not with the curved scimitars usual with Orcs: and they had bows of yew, in length and shape like the bows of Men.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 1, “The Departure of Boromir”)

So far, we’ve seen spears


and scimitars


and now we can add to that “short broad-bladed swords”.  Perhaps Tolkien is thinking of the medieval “arming sword”


or even the Roman gladius?


When we add “bows of yew, in length and shape like the bows of Men”, we immediately see the classic English longbow.


This doesn’t quite match with the first orc bowman we see in the films, however, “Lurtz”—



who appears to have some sort of recurved bow, possibly composite, of the sort the Mongols used


even though, from the white hand on his face, he is supposed to be one of those “goblin-soldiers” from Isengard.

As we were looking through Tolkien’s text, we wondered where he would have gotten his ideas for weapons from.  If the basis, as we imagine it, would have been his background in medieval literature, then he might have gone to the library and found an old standard work, Sir Samuel Meyrick’s (1783-1848)


An Inquiry Into Ancient Armour, As It Existed in Europe, Particularly in Great Britain, From the Norman Conquest to the Reign of Charles the Second, first published in 1824.  (Here’s a LINK if you’d like to look at this text for yourself.)


Meyrick was the first great English specialist in armor and the later editions of his work (in 3 volumes) have wonderful early hand-colored plates, all based upon surviving armor, tombs, manuscripts, and any other period materials he could gather.


If JRRT wanted to see such things for himself, he would have found more exotic weapons in the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford,


or he could have traveled up to London to see the Wallace Collection


or, best of all, he could have visited the Tower of London, with its massive collection (the organizing of which had earned Meyrick his knighthood in 1832) of medieval arms and armor, which had been available to the public in some form even before Meyrick’s time—here’s a Victorian tour.



It could have been all of the above, of course, but it seems to us that the descriptions we’re reading are actually not really very specific—“mace”, “spear”, “scimitar”—only those short swords and bows suggest anything more detailed.  Perhaps, then, Tolkien was inspired by something else—perhaps he had read, perhaps even possessed, as a boy, books like Howard Pyle’s 1903 The Story of King Arthur and His Knights


and been inspired by its illustrations.


There were plenty of illustrated tales like this—Conan Doyle’s The White Company (first published in serial form in 1891),


or Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow (serial 1883, book 1888).


With any and all of that background, we wonder what he might have made of this, however, an orc sword from the films which looks more like something manufactured from a car part than the product of a medieval armorer…


Thanks, as ever, for reading.




If car part weapons don’t bother you, you might be interested in this LINK—it’s an early article on ideas for weapons and armor for the Jackson films.

Speaking Up


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Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

We are always interested in linking JRRT and Middle-earth with things of this earth, from Tolkien’s experience in the Great War to English geography vs that of Middle-earth.  In this posting, we begin with an elephant—or, rather, oliphaunt.  Which is an elephant—sort of, only bigger and menacing.


“Big as a house, much bigger than a house, it looked to him, a grey-clad moving hill…his great legs like trees, enormous sail-like ears spread out, long snout upraised like a huge serpent about to strike, his small red eyes raging.  His upturned hornlike tusks were bound with bands of gold and dripped with blood.”  (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 4, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”)

As big as the oliphaunt is, the real subject of our post is actually one small part of what might have been JRRT’s Victorian/Edwardian educational experience and its reflection in the form of Sam Gamgee, who, “stood up, putting his hands behind his back (as he always did when ‘speaking poetry’) and began:

Grey as a mouse

Big as a house

Nose like a snake

I make the earth shake

As I tramp through the grass

Trees crack as I pass

With horns in my mouth

I walk in the South

Flapping big ears

Beyond count of years

I stump round and round

Never lie on the ground

Not even to die

Oliphaunt am I

Biggest of all

Huge, old, and tall

If ever you’d met me

You wouldn’t forget me

If you never do

You won’t think I’m true

But old Oliphaunt am I

And I never lie.”


In the 1890s, when JRRT was a little boy, a mainstay of that education was the combination of memorization and repetition through recitation.


Children were expected to commit to memory—and to be able to perform—any number of poetic works whenever called upon.  In what was probably an extreme example, the poet Alfred Tennyson’s (1809-1892)


father is said to have required him to memorize and repeat to him over four mornings all four books of the Roman poet, Horace’s, ( 65-8BC)


(This is a “traditional” portrait of the poet, but probably isn’t really he.)

odes—a hefty chore—that’s 103 poems—in Latin.

It’s not surprising, then, that one little Victorian girl, finding herself in a strange and distorted world, would try to provide herself with both comfort and stability by returning to the familiar:  reciting.


“I’ll try and say ‘ How doth the little—'” and she

crossed her hands on her lap as if she were

saying lessons, and began to repeat it…”

This is from Chapter 2, “The Pool of Tears”, of Lewis Carroll’s


Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865 (this is an 1866 printing).


What Alice will try to repeat is a poem called “Against Idleness and Mischief”, by the clergyman Isaac Watts (1674-1748),


from his 1715 collection, Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children.


This is what Alice thought that she was going to say:

1    How doth the little busy Bee

2    Improve each shining Hour,

3   And gather Honey all the day

4    From every opening Flower!


5    How skilfully she builds her Cell!

6    How neat she spreads the Wax!

7    And labours hard to store it well

8    With the sweet Food she makes.


9    In Works of Labour or of Skill

10   I would be busy too:

11   For Satan finds some Mischief still

12    For idle Hands to do.


13    In Books, or Work, or healthful Play

14    Let my first Years be past,

15   That I may give for every Day

16    Some good Account at last.


What Alice recited, however, was not quite that:

“but her voice sounded hoarse and strange, and the words did not come the same as they used to do :

” How doth the little crocodile

Improve his shining tail,

And pour the waters of the Nile

On every golden scale!


How cheerfully he seems to grin,

How neatly spreads his claws,

And welcomes little fishes in

With gently smiling jaws.”


which was hardly comforting!

Twice, Alice is called upon by others to recite—in Chapter 5, by a hookah-smoking caterpillar,


who demands that she recite “You are old, Father William”—which is, in itself, topsy-turvy, as, instead of the kind of morally-inspiring poem Victorian children were clearly expected to produce, it’s a parody of William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850), “Resolution and Independence” (1802, published 1807), a poem about an elderly pauper who makes a living collecting leeches (and who perks up the previously-despondent Wordsworth with his sturdy view of life).


Instead of that sturdy view, here is what Alice begins to recite on the subject of Father William’s behavior:

” You are old, Father William,” the young man said,

”And your hair has become very white;

And yet you incessantly stand on your head—

Do you think, at your age, it is right ?”


And in Chapter 10, a gryphon


orders her to “Stand up and repeat ‘Tis the voice of the sluggard’, another moral poem by Watts.  It should begin:

‘Tis the voice of the sluggard, I heard him complain,

“You have waked me too soon, I must slumber again.”
As the door on its hinges, so he on his bed,
Turns his sides and his shoulders and his heavy head.

Instead, out comes:

”’Tis the voice of the lobster; I heard him declare,

‘ You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair!

As a duck with its eyelids, so he with his nose

Trims his belt and his buttons, and turns out his toes.””


In each case, what was meant to be comforting or at least dutiful, has turned out distorted and disturbing.  As the Caterpillar says—and Alice answers–

” That is not said right,” said the Caterpillar. ”Not quite right, I’m afraid,” said Alice,

timidly; “some of the words have got altered.”

” It is wrong from beginning to end,” said the

Caterpillar decidedly, and there was silence for

some minutes.


This was hardly the expected effect, either for Victorians in general or for Alice, in particular, but, if the Caterpillar is censorious and Alice apologetic, Sam’s master has a completely different reaction to the hobbit’s recitation:

“Frodo stood up.  He had laughed in the midst of all his cares when Sam trotted out the old fireside rhyme of Oliphaunt, and the laugh had released him from hesitation.”  (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter Three, “The Black Gate is Closed”)

We wonder what the Caterpillar’s reaction might have been if Alice had recited “Oliphaunt”.

Thanks, as always, for reading.



Green and Quiet.2


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Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

The late-Victorian/Edwardian world of JRRT’s childhood and youth was full of stirring stories and illustrations of military adventure, from the 1815 charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo


to the disastrous (but glorious) charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854


to the near-disastrous (but also glorious) charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman (1898)


to the expectation of more glorious attacks in the event of a Great War on the continent.


Such images may have inspired him to join a volunteer cavalry unit at Oxford, King Edward’s Horse,


and may even lie behind the charge of the Rohirrim at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.


To us, however, it also symbolizes something else:  the role of the horse in Tolkien’s world.  Its military role was more than simply carrying the glamorous cavalry, however.


It also pulled the guns,


the supply wagons,


the ambulances,


as well as carried those in control of it all, from the Kings (after 1901)



to the generals,


and it was the same for all of Europe and the US, as well.




All of which simply reflected that, for all that there were railroads


and the West was crisscrossed with railway tracks,


horses still pulled the world,


as they had from Roman times


through medieval


and still did, even beyond the Great War.


In our last posting, we discussed a line from The Hobbit :  “By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green…”

We suggested that, with that phrase “long ago” and that imperfect tense verb form, “was”, all was no longer so quiet or green and that goblins/orcs, or their modern equivalent in the Industrial Revolution, were eating up the green of the world, as well as the quiet, but we would like to add to that that a major change in transport, which removed the horse almost entirely from the picture, also contributed greatly.

First, of course, it was those railways which cut through everywhere, steaming and smoking and hooting.


These greatly reduced the use of horses for carrying things—and people—over distances.



At the turn of the century, however, a new invention would come to so diminish the employment of horses eventually to the point where they would be thought obsolete.


At first, they were few and far between, available only to the rich for personal use.


The massive production needed for the Great War (1914-1918),


however, encouraged both post-war demand and supply.



As we’ve discussed in previous postings, the Romans had been masters of the paved road.



After the Romans, however, the secret (and the massive amounts of cash, as well as the numbers of workers) to such roads was lost and roads declined into, at best, wide paths—dust baths in summer, swamps in winter.


At best, a road might be “metalled”—that is, covered in loose stone (from Latin “metallum”—here, meaning “quarry”).


In the 1820s, the Scots engineer, JL McAdam, created roads with a crushed stone surface over larger inlaid stones.



Each of these was an improvement over a dirt track,


but, about 1900, the next process arrived, with the use of bitumen and then various petroleum substances to cover the surface and, along with the use of concrete, these produced the roads we still drive on today.


Unfortunately for green and quiet, this rapidly multiplied the decay of both, as cars and trucks and the roads they needed began to spread across the landscape.  Imagine, for a man who had been born into the greener and quieter and horsier world of 1892, what this 1930s traffic jam would have been like and you can easily see why he would have believed that goblins and orcs could so harm the peaceful world!


Thanks, as ever, for reading.



Recently, we happened upon this very interesting story, which we had never seen before, from the online BBC New, 3 July, 2006.  The author mentions “Tolkien’s son” by whom he means JRRT’s second son, Michael.

Many years ago I corresponded with Tolkien’s son, a schoolmaster like myself. He said the Dark Riders in his novel were based on a real recurring nightmare from the Forst World War. Tolkien, riding a good cavlary horse, had somehow got lost behind the German lines,and, imagining he was behind his own trenches, rode towards a group of mounted cavalrymen standing in the shade of a coppice.

It was only when he drew nearer he realised his mistake for they German Ulhans, noted for their atrocities and taking no prisoners. When they saw him they set off in pursuit with their lances levelled at him. He swung his horse round and galloped off hotly pursued by the Germans. They had faster steeds but Tolkien’s horse was a big-boned hunter.

They got near enough for him to see their skull and crossbone helmet badges. Fortunately for Tolkien (and us, his readers)he raced towards some old trenches which his horse, used to hunting, took in its stride. The Uhlans’ horses weren’t up to it and they reined in leaving Tolkien to get away to his own side.

He was terrified and the cruel faces of those Uhlans and their badges haunted him in nightmares for a long time afterwards. Years later, when he was writing his novel, the Dark Riders were the result of that terrifying chase.
Revd John Waddington-Feather, Shrewsbury

There are some odd typos, but we think that the basic story might be true except for the details about the German cavalry.  Uhlans are lancers, but lancer cap badges looked like this.


German hussar busbies, however, could have the famous “death’s head” badge.


And German hussars also could carry lances as in this picture from 1915.


German cavalry went to war with covers over their headgear (as in the photo of the hussars), but, if the story is accurate, we might presume that the hussars, for some reason, have shed those covers.

Green and Quiet.1


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As always, dear readers, welcome.

We’ve always loved the lines

“By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green…”

which open the paragraph in which Gandalf first appears in The Hobbit and the story actually begins.

For JRRT, green and quiet are the ideal, but things have clearly changed—as this sentence implies, now there is more noise and less quiet.  In our time—and even before Tolkien’s childhood in the late 19th century—the green and quiet were and are going thanks to the Industrial Revolution.  Or so we thought.  Reading Tolkien, however, we begin to believe that it’s goblins:

“Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted.  They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones.  They can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble, though they are usually untidy and dirty.  Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well, or get other people to do the work to make to their design, prisoners and slaves that have to work till they die for want of air and light.  It is not unlikely that they have invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far.”  (The Hobbit, Chapter Four, “Over Hill and Under Hill”)

In our last posting, we had linked this passage with the invention of poison gases by German scientists and their use first by German soldiers and then by the Allies in the Great War, but we would like to add to that idea that this may be in reality a larger indictment, of the Industrial Revolution and the effects it had had upon the English countryside.

This revolution had begun in the 18th century, in Britain, when the country was first becoming a major mercantile and colonial power and the demand for British goods—especially British wool and cloth—was growing.  A succession of inventions from the 1760s on had turned a (literal) “cottage industry” of clothing-making—


into something which produced thread and cloth on a massive scale in early factories.


These factories, often called “mills” because of their original use of waterpower,


as was done in the small factories which, all the way back to Roman times, had ground grain into flour,


could also, in time, be run by steam power.


Mills of this sort soon became prototypes for factories built to mass-produce anything


and soon the air around cities was thick with smoke and industrial waste.


With no laws to stop them, mill/factory owners bought up land, employed people (many of them ex-cottage workers thrown out of work by the very factories they now sought work in) in near-slave conditions—including children–and polluted water and air with no fear of punishment.  Here is Charles Dickens’ description of a town filled such places, from his 1854 novel, Hard Times:

“It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.”

Set this next to Gandalf’s description of what had happened to Isengard and you can see what we mean about goblins (here, Saruman and his orcs—but JRRT sometimes uses goblin and orc interchangeably) as what has destroyed the quiet and green:

“I looked on it and saw that, whereas it had once been green and fair, it was now filled with pits and forges…Over all his works a dark smoke hung and wrapped itself about the sides of Orthanc.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Council of Elrond”)


In 1895, Tolkien’s mother, Mabel,


who had been living in South Africa with her husband, brought her two sons, JRRT and Hilary, to the Birmingham area of England for a visit to relatives.


Unfortunately, while they were gone, Tolkien’s father died of rheumatic fever.  Mabel decided to stay in England and found a place for her sons and herself at Sarehole, southeast of Birmingham itself.


Birmingham was a booming product of that Industrial Revolution, which we’re sure is why Mabel chose a tiny village several miles away.


Birmingham was also an ancient settlement, (here’s a LINK to a minitour of the medieval town) but had mushroomed, both in factories and population even at the beginning of the 19th century, as this verse from a music hall song from 1828 by James Dobbs depicts:

‘I remember one John Growse,
Who buckles made in Brummagem,
He built himself a country house,
To be out of the smoke of Brummagem
But though John’s country house stands still,
The town itself has walked up hill,
Now he lives beside a smoky mill,
In the middle of the streets of   Brummagem.”

(James Dobbs (1781-1837), “I Can’t Find Brummagem”.  Brummagem is an old local nickname for Birmingham.  Here’s a LINK so that you can see the whole song and its tune, which we know as “Duncan Grey”.  If you go to the link, you’ll notice we’ve made a few editorial additions, which we knew from another version of the song and which help the words to better fit the tune.)

And yet, although Sarehole had an old mill, it was not like those in Birmingham or even in Dickens,


and, in later years, in fact, Tolkien saw the little village beyond it as a kind of paradise, as he said in an interview:

‘It was a kind of lost paradise,’ he said. ‘There was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill. I always knew it would go – and it did.’

(This is taken from an article by John Ezard in The Guardian for 28 December, 1991—here’s a LINK so that you can read all of it.)

This strong contrast between green and quiet and its opposites, as seen in Sarehole versus Birmingham, early in Tolkien’s life, and the two stages of Isengard, will appear again in the Shire as Saruman/Sharkey has planned.  The green and quiet is literally uprooted and even Sandyman’s old mill is a victim of the goblinesque work as Farmer Cotton says:


“But since Sharkey came they don’t grind no more corn at all.  They’re always a-hammering and a-letting out a smoke and stench, and there’s no peace even at night in Hobbiton.  And they pour out filth a purpose; they’ve fouled all the lower Water, and it’s getting down into Brandywine.”

(The Return of the King,  Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)


Those who work for Sharkey are men, but, as you can see, under his influence, they act very much like those destructive goblins with which we began.   For all that he rode in automobiles and trains and used telephones and typewriters, JRRT was never quite happy in the modern world and, considering that the goblins seemed always poised to ruin more green and produce more noise at the command of a modern-day Saruman, it’s perhaps not surprising.  It’s also not surprising, we would add, that his favorite creatures, trees, are the ones who destroy Saruman’s handiwork at Isengard and return it to a leafy park.


Thanks, as ever, for reading.





In our next, we want to talk about another aspect of quiet which had changed from Tolkien’s childhood and may be a reason why there are Rohirrim and why JRRT himself enlisted in the volunteer cavalry…


Gobs and Hobs.2


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As always, dear Readers, welcome!

In our last, we were talking about JRRT’s 1915 poem, “Goblin Feet” its origins, original publication, and context.

In this, we want to think out loud a bit about the idea of goblins in general.

Although the poem was entitled “Goblin Feet”, Tolkien seemed not to focus so much on goblins—there are also other creatures from the Otherworld, including fairies and gnomes and even leprechauns (not to mention bats—called by their old country name “flitter-mice”—and beetles and coneys).

In this posting, however, we’re going to stick to goblins—well, and hobgoblins—but more about those later.

We first encountered goblins as very small children when a teacher read us a poem by the American poet, James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916).


(We can’t resist a second picture.  This is by one of our favorite late-19th-early-20th-c. American Painters, John Singer Sargent—1856-1925.)


This poem, first entitled “Elf Child”, originally appeared in a newspaper in 1885.  After that, it was meant to be “Little Orphan Allie”, but, owing to a typsetter’s error, it gained its present title, which it’s had ever since.

Little Orphant Annie – Poem by James Whitcomb Riley

To all the little children: — The happy ones; and sad ones;
The sober and the silent ones; the boisterous and glad ones;
The good ones — Yes, the good ones, too; and all the lovely bad ones.

Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,
An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,
An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,
An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an’ earn her board-an’-keep;
An’ all us other childern, when the supper-things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an’ has the mostest fun
A-list’nin’ to the witch-tales ‘at Annie tells about,
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you
Ef you

Wunst they wuz a little boy wouldn’t say his prayers,–
An’ when he went to bed at night, away up-stairs,
His Mammy heerd him holler, an’ his Daddy heerd him bawl,
An’ when they turn’t the kivvers down, he wuzn’t there at all!
An’ they seeked him in the rafter-room, an’ cubby-hole, an’ press,
An’ seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an’ ever’-wheres, I guess;
But all they ever found wuz jist his pants an’ roundabout:–
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you
Ef you

An’ one time a little girl ‘ud allus laugh an’ grin,
An’ make fun of ever’ one, an’ all her blood-an’-kin;
An’ wunst, when they was ‘company,’ an’ ole folks wuz there,
She mocked ’em an’ shocked ’em, an’ said she didn’t care!
An’ jist as she kicked her heels, an’ turn’t to run an’ hide,
They wuz two great big Black Things a-standin’ by her side,
An’ they snatched her through the ceilin’ ‘fore she knowed what she’s about!
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you
Ef you

An’ little Orphant Annie says, when the blaze is blue,
An’ the lamp-wick sputters, an’ the wind goes woo-oo!
An’ you hear the crickets quit, an’ the moon is gray,
An’ the lightnin’-bugs in dew is all squenched away,–
You better mind yer parunts, an’ yer teachurs fond an’ dear,
An’ churish them ‘as loves you, an’ dry the orphant’s tear,
An’ he’p the pore an’ needy ones ‘at clusters all about,
Er the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you
Ef you

In some ways, this is a typical Victorian moral poem:  children better behave, or…  But, instead of being in “proper” English, it’s been told in the dialect of the US state of Indiana and this was something for which Riley was well-known, having written numbers of poems in the so-called “Hoosier” dialect.  (This includes what looks like a misprint for the proper spelling “orphan”.)

Our acquaintance with goblins has continued to be literary, from Christina Rossetti’s (1830-1894)


Goblin Market (1862)


to George Macdonald’s (1824-1905)


1872 fantasy novel, The Princess and the Goblin.


Our biggest—and longest—exposure, of course, was in The Hobbit (1937).


Goblins turn up from the moment Bilbo and the dwarves fall into their hands in Chapter 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill” and we see them again in their pursuit of the party once they’ve escaped the goblin stronghold and finally at the Battle of the Five Armies.  At their first appearance, they are described as “great ugly-looking goblins” and, unlike the nimble-footed creatures of Tolkien’s 1915 poem, these have flat feet and flap them as they move.  They live in a monarchy, ruled (for the moment) by a king described as “a tremendous goblin with a huge head”.

So far, we might see that as traditional nightmarish beings, like the “great big Black Things” in stanza 3 of Riley’s poem, but JRRT does something further and very interesting with them.  This first novel was written in the 1930s, only twenty years after the Great War which had ruined much of western Europe and killed all but one of Tolkien’s oldest friends, and the emotional scar was still fresh, it seems.  He was too humane (and too wise) to blame Germany for what had happened, but it’s clear that he wouldn’t excuse the Industrial Revolution and the goblins become a stand-in for all the worse of it:

“Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well, or get other people to make to their designs, prisoners and slaves that have to work till they die for want of air and light.  It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (so it is called) so far.”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill”)

The word “goblin” has a rather mysterious etymological history and, like so many early words, that history is a murky one, full of guesses and suggestions.  A little research produces the explanation that the word first seems to appear in Latin, in Orderic Vitalis’ (1075-c1142) Historia Ecclesiastica, Book 5, Chapter 7, in which, while reviewing the life of the early French saint, Taurinus, (lived c.400AD), Orderic mentions a demon whom the saint has vanquished, but which still haunted the area around the town of Evreux in Normandy, a demon the locals called “gobelinus”.

A century later, in the long Old French poem on the Third Crusade (1189-1192) of Ambroise of Normandy (who lived at the end of the 12th century), a noted figure in the actual history of the period, Balian d’ Ibelin, is referred to as being “more false than a gobelin” (L’Histoire de la Guerre Sainte, line 8710), with no explanation, suggesting that readers would be aware of what a gobelin was (and that he wasn’t trustworthy).

The word first appears in English in John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible in the late 14th century, in Psalm 91, in which a God-fearing person will never be afraid of various things, including

“of a gobelyn goyng in derknisses”.

If 14th-century people knew what this creature was, we wonder whether it was still clear to people two centuries later—the older standard English translation (the so-called “King James Bible”, 1611) translates this as

“the pestilence that walks in darkness”

(which actually is close to the Hebrew original, as best as we can make out, as we don’t, unfortunately, read Hebrew—see this LINK to read for yourself.)

In the preface to the 1951 second edition of The Hobbit, Tolkien gives his own gloss, based upon the word he will employ almost entirely in The Lord of the Rings for such creatures:

Orc is not an English word.  It occurs in one or two places but is usually translated goblin (or hobgoblin for the larger kinds).  Orc is the hobbits’ form of the name given at that time to these creatures…)

thus blending villains from 1937 with those readers would soon see in his new work, The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955).

“Hobgoblin” brings us to our conclusion, however.  As in the case of “goblin”, things get murky here, too, with some stating that, as “Hob” is an old nickname for “Robert” (compare “Hodge” as an old nickname for “Roger”), so a hobgoblin is related to “Robin Goodfellow”, (“Robin” being another nickname for “Robert”) aka the Puck we see in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-96?).


(This image is from Arthur Rackham’s (1865-1939) 1933 version of the play.)


Hobgoblins sometimes appear as prickly household helpers (rather like Dobby in the Harry Potter books), and those who want to associate the “hob” of “hobgoblin” with the “hob” (earlier “hubbe”), “the side of a fireplace” see that prefix as suggesting that “hobgoblins” might be a subset of “goblins” in general.

For us, however, a “hob” is a character in an on-going series we recommend to our readers.  These are novels set in and around a decaying medieval monastery in 1347 and the haunted world around it, written by Pat Walsh, an archaeologist/fantasy author.


The first two in the series are The Crowfield Curse (2010) and The Crowfield Demon (2011)



In this series, the hero, Will, an orphan, discovers a wounded creature and brings it back to the monastery.  It’s a hob—and will be a major character as the series develops.  In 2014, Walsh began a new series with The Hob and the Deerman.


Walsh has promised a third book in the Crowfield series, Crowfield Rising, but it has yet to appear—unlike our next posting, which will appear (provided that there is no space alien invasion or implementation of Order 66 or Sauron producing a new ring), next week.

Till then, thanks, as ever, for reading.




In our last, we mistakenly identified a photo of JRRT in a uniform which we thought belonged to a unit at his alma mater, King Edward’s School, as the caption with it said “1907”.   It seemed odd to us, however, because it had the look of a cavalry unit (the bandoleer across the chest was common during the period for cavalry and for artillerymen) and, for all that he writes admiringly of horses, we had no sense that he himself was ever a horseman.  This nagged at us until we did a little research and realized our mistake:  the uniform was for King Edward’s Horse, the equivalent of a national guard/volunteer unit raised before the Great War.  Tolkien was a member of this at the beginning of his Oxford career in 1911, but later resigned.  John Garth’s two really useful books, Tolkien at Exeter College and Tolkien and the Great War, set us straight.



If you read us regularly, you know that we have a special love for early, silent film  While researching this posting, we learned that, in 1918, a film was made based upon “Little Orphant Annie” and that a copy of it has survived for us to see.  Here’s a poster and a still.




Gobs and Hobs (1)


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As always, dear readers, welcome.

In 1915, Tolkien was


scrambling to finish his BA at Exeter College


before he was swept up into the war which was gradually devouring the younger male populations of much of western Europe


and would soon swallow him, as well.


Although he had been a cadet in his earlier days,


he resisted the societal pressure to join up and that must have been difficult, as it was not uncommon in 1915 for young men not in uniform to be stopped in the street by civilians, particularly women, and asked why they hadn’t enlisted yet before being presented with a white feather as a symbol of cowardice.



The use of a white feather appears to have been derived from the old sport of cockfighting, in which it was believed that a rooster with a white tail feather would be a poor combatant.


For us, the image is directly related to a famous 1902 adventure novel, The Four Feathers


by A E Mason (1865-1948).



In this book, the main character, Harry Feversham, is thought to be a coward by his brother officers and by his fiancé and goes to heroic lengths to prove otherwise (here’s a LINK so that you can enjoy the book for yourself, if you would like).

As well as the book, there have been a number of films made from it, including the one which we believe to be the best, from 1939.


During this scramble to finish, Tolkien wrote a poem in late April for his wife-to-be, Edith Bratt (1889-1971).


Called “Goblin Feet”, it was first published in Oxford Poetry 1915.  (Here’s a LINK so that you may have your own copy of the book.)


Here’s the text:

I am off down the road
Where the fairy lanterns glowed
And the little pretty flitter-mice are flying;
A slender band of gray
It runs creepily away
And the hedges and the grasses are a-sighing.
The air is full of wings,
And of blundery beetle-things
That warn you with their whirring and their humming.
O! I hear the tiny horns
Of enchanted leprechauns
And the padded feet of many gnomes a-coming!
O! the lights! O! the gleams! O! the little twinkly sounds!
O! the rustle of their noiseless little robes!
O! the echo of their feet — of their happy little feet!
O! the swinging lamps in the starlit globes.

I must follow in their train
Down the crooked fairy lane
Where the coney-rabbits long ago have gone.
And where silvery 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! let me start!
For the little magic hours are all a-flying.

O! the warmth! O! the hum! O! the colors 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.

Two things strike us immediately about this text.  First, its tone of subdued longing for Otherness—“I must follow”, “O! it’s knocking at my heart”, “O! the sorrow when it dies”.  This reminded us of WB Yeats’  (1865-1939) “The Hosting of the Sidhe” (from the volume The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899)

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
The host is rushing ‘twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

(Here, by the way, is the cover to the first edition of the volume, artwork by Yeats’ friend, Althea Giles.


And here’s a LINK to the earliest edition we can find on the internet—it’s the 4th, from 1903.)

Yeats, in this part of his creative life, was just leaving the late-Victorian era called the “Celtic Twilight”, in which Irish artists of all sorts were attempting to create a new art, independent of British art and literature and based upon what they conceived were “Old Irish models”.  To someone of late-Romantic temperament, like Tolkien, the attraction must have been very strong—note that leprechauns have somehow gotten mixed with the goblins!

This mixing of all kinds of beings from Faerie—goblins, fairies, leprechauns, gnomes—and their diminutive size—note five uses of “little” and one “tiny” –is the second thing which strikes us. The shrinking of otherworld beings in English literature can be traced at least as far back as Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night’s Dream,

STC 22302, title page


but really catches hold in the 19th century, with the pictorial work of artists like Richard Doyle



and which is parodied by WS Gilbert (1836-1911), in Iolanthe (1882), in which the human-sized (and often played by a stout woman) Queen of the Fairies talks all about curling “myself inside a buttercup”, all the while being costumed to look like a Valkyrie from Wagner’s operas—an extra visual joke (which is, in our Gilbert and Sullivan experience, no longer employed—a pity!).



(Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), who was the composer of Iolanthe, has left us a very beautiful overture for it.  Here’s a LINK so that you can hear it.)

JRRT seems, at the very beginning of his literary life, to have been caught up in this mixture of Shakespeare and Victoriana and Yeats’ “Celtic Twilight” mood and it’s perhaps for that reason that, later in life, looking back on it, he said of this early poem:

“I wish the unhappy little thing, representing all that I came (so soon after) to fervently dislike, could be buried forever.” (The Book of Lost Tales Part One, “The Cottage of Lost Play”, 32)

Was he embarrassed at his own youthful influences?  And there have certainly been later critics who have been hard upon the poem.

If we put it into the context of 1915, however, this longing to be anywhere but in wartime 1915 makes perfect sense, especially for a young, sensitive, highly-intelligent man deeply in love with a girl he’d worked so hard to be with. The real horrific violence of the Great War was kept hidden from the people of the UK by the Government.  Newspapers and magazines were censored, soldiers’ letters were censored (Tolkien and Edith developed a secret code in his letters to get around that censorship), soldiers were not allowed to keep diaries or have cameras (only official photographers were permitted to work at the Front—and their work was closely watched), but word still got back, mainly, we suspect, from those on leave, often wounded, who had experienced events which turned out like this—


Is it any wonder, with what he knew about and dreaded being part of, that JRRT would have wished to be on the road to Fairyland?

Thanks, as always, for reading.




In our next, we want to think out loud a bit about the goblins whose feet JRRT wants so much to follow…

In Depth


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

In 1977, the more observant viewers and critics commented upon the look and feel of a new film.  Instead of a world in which everything appeared newly-produced and sparkling, this was one in which it was clear that people had lived for a long time and many different peoples, at that.


Even their vehicles had a scratched and dusty look.


We had been told, of course, in the very opening sequence that this was an old place—


but actually seeing its used look was that much more convincing


as was seeing—and hearing—its peoples,


who sometimes even required subtitles, as if the audience were watching a foreign film.


In time, as the success of this film produced not only more films, but mountains of other material, from novels to graphic novels to spin-off series to toys and t-shirts and kitchen ware,


a whole literature appeared about this world—or, we should say, worlds. Its geography and even its extremely-varied animal life.



And, along with all of the other material, information about its languages began to appear.


What prompted this posting, however, was something odd about one of those languages, that spoken by a character in what would, in time, become the sixth in the series.


This was pointed out to us by David J. Peterson


in his 2015 book, The Art of Language Invention.


As a child, what had puzzled Peterson was that the character (who is subtitled), says only “Yate, yate, yoto, ei, yato, cha”—in total, only six different words, but they are translated as everything from “I have come for the bounty on this Wookiee” to “50,000, no less”.  (This is quoted and discussed on pages 3 to 5 of Peterson’s book—which is, by the way, one we would recommend, if you’re as interested in languages as we are.)

How could so few words mean so many different things?  As an adult, looking back, Peterson had his doubts and we would agree—especially when reading about the world in which Peterson lives, the world of “conlang”, which is short for “constructed languages”.  Peterson is the creator of Dothraki, the language of the nomadic Dothraki people,


one of the numerous races which inhabit the landscape of George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones, first novels, then a huge, elaborate, and engrossing television series.



The difference between “yate”, etc and Dothraki is that those few words are there to suggest that someone is speaking in a language different from the language spoken by the majority of the characters—which is the method employed throughout not only this film, but its two immediate successors.


What Peterson set out to do was to create the shape of an entire language (something he has done more than once).  Here’s a LINK to the Wiki site, which, as usual, leads to other sites, which lead to other sites, which lead… if you’d like to learn more.

As worn-looking buildings and vehicles, different peoples and flora and fauna, and at least the suggestion of other languages create a bigger, deeper picture of the setting of an adventure, so, too, does the suggestion of great age.  Over time, the huge pile of material for the film series we first mentioned showed, in detail, that what we were seeing was, in fact, only the latest phase in a whole galaxy of civilizations over many centuries—after all, “For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic”.


Another way to suggest that great age is a much less dramatic one—perhaps even a nearly-invisible one–practiced by one of our favorite authors and the subject of innumerable postings, and here is one of his efforts.


What we’re seeing here is JRRT working out the history of sounds throughout a series of Elf languages, Qenya, Telerin, Noldorin, Ilkorin, and Danian, part of his immense and immensely-detailed work on the tongues of Middle-earth.   All languages change through time, of course—here’s a rough version of the succession of periods of English—

Old English (the opening lines of Beowulf, 700-1000AD,


Middle English (the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, c.1400AD),


Early Modern English (the beginning of the first scene of Shakepeare’s Hamlet, 1603),


early 19th-century English (the first lines of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, 1813),


and early 20th-century English (the opening of James Joyce’s Ulysses, 1922).


And Joyce even attempted to suggest the procession of those periods in Chapter 14 of Ulysses, “The Oxen of the Sun”, where the story is told through paragraphs which sound like earlier versions of the language gradually moving towards modern English.  (The novelist Nabokov, who played with language constantly, actually found this chapter boring, perhaps because it seemed to him like a one-off, not really in aid of the plot and its characters in general, but rather just a piece of private fun by and for the author?)

JRRT, however, goes one better.  Like other creators of big adventures, he used lots of means to deepen his story, from an extensive and detailed map


to describing the remains of earlier times still standing in the landscape of Middle-earth of the present,


to adding detailed historical appendices and chronologies (and his valiant son, Christopher, has added many volumes more),


but using intricate sound changes and their logical development takes the idea of depth into new regions, especially because it would probably go unnoticed by most readers—there’s an awful lot of detail in those appendices—but whose meticulous creation is not in the least surprising for someone who once wrote, “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.” (Letters, 219)

Thanks, as ever, for reading.





Ah yes—the nearly-inevitable post scriptum—if the normal world/s of the films we first mentioned are “scruffy-looking” (to quote a character about another character), we notice that the world of the villains—the soldiers of the Empire and their surroundings—are hard and clean and shiny—which makes us feel a little better when we wonder when we may last have shined our shoes.


Dayless Dawn


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

In this, the last year of the centennial of the Great War, we are often reminded not only of that conflict, but also that Second Lieutenant J R R Tolkien took part in it.


By the time he had reached the Front, in July, 1916, the latest round of blood-letting, the infamous Somme, was already in progress.



“Blood-letting” is an understatement:  on the first day of the battle, 1 July, 1916, there had been nearly 60,000 British casualties and attacks would continue till November.  The problems faced were mainly those of 1914.  The well-equipped, well-trained professional soldier of the British Expeditionary Force


met the Maxim Gun


and took heavy casualties.  These casualties were multiplied by the number and range of German artillery.


To defend themselves against these modern weapons, soldiers went to ground as soon as they could.


Digging in moved from a simple scrape of the earth into 500 miles (from Switzerland to the North Sea) of often very elaborate earthworks.


Equip these with machine guns


and spread acres of barbed wire in front


and you can think that you’re safe from attack.


So, the problem then was:  how to break through?  And this is where the German chemical industry


and its brilliant chemist, Fritz Haber,


(who will share the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1918) came in.

Haber, famous for creating artificial fertilizer—his positive side—was also a captain in the Kaiser’s army (hence the uniform in our illustration), intensely convinced that Germany was justified in waging war on Europe, and began to develop a reply to elaborate fortifications:  poison gases—Haber’s dark side.

Nearly twenty years before, in 1900, many of the world’s nations, including Germany, had signed an agreement at the Hague that, among other things, they wouldn’t employ such a weapon, but, clearly, the temptation was too great, and not only for Germany.  After the first major attack, 22 April, 1915, in which the Germans had killed or driven a large number of French troops from their trenches, the British and French began their own development programs.

Over time, the gases varied as experiments showed scientists and military men what worked and what didn’t.  There were simple tear gases, which incapacitated soldiers by blinding them with their own tears and disturbed their breathing, to much deadlier blister agents—but here’s a chart to lay out the effects.


Delivery systems varied.  Gas might be released from canisters, allowing the prevailing wind to carry it to the enemy.


The difficulty here was the variability of winds—should the direction change, the releasers of gas might—and sometimes did—find themselves the victims.

Gas packed into artillery shells was more dependable.


Shells were marked to identify which gas was inside, as in this illustration.

In time, the British developed a method of projecting gas bombs in large numbers with what were called “Livens projectors”.



This simple mechanism could be used in banks to blanket the enemy line with poisonous air.


Initially, there had been no defense against this weapon, but, in time, both sides developed gas masks.


And, of course, something had to be done for the hundreds of thousands of horses both depended upon.


Here’s how the later, more efficient ones worked.


They might have prevented suffocation, but they were uncomfortable and, worse, the lenses soon fogged over, making it difficult to see the enemy in their masks advancing through the clouds of gas.



In the television series about young Indiana Jones of some years ago, there was a very graphic depiction of this—and here’s a LINK so that you can see for yourself.  (We very much recommend this series, by the way.  On the whole, it has many episodes which not only fill in Indie’s past, but are good adventure stories in themselves.)

We can imagine, then, what might have been going on in JRRT’s mind when he wrote:

“It was dark and dim all day.  From the sunless dawn until evening the heavy shadow had deepened, and all hearts in the City were oppressed.  Far above a great cloud streamed slowly westward from the Black Land, devouring light, borne upon a wind of war; but below the air was still and breathless, as if all the Vale of Anduin waited for the onset of a ruinous storm.”  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”)


Were those orcs approaching, or the Kaiser’s infantry?


Thanks, as ever, for reading.




The horrific effects of chemical warfare have, to us, never been more powerfully depicted than in John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925)  Gassed (1919), based upon Sargent’s visit to the Western Front in July, 1918.



But, you know us—if we can add a little something more, we always will and, in this case, we want to end not with just this image, horrible and moving as it is, but with something from another of Sargent’s works.  Along with being a society painter, he was one of the greatest American watercolorists and has left us a collection of beautiful, atmospheric works from Europe, the US, and the Caribbean.  We want to end, then, with these very different clouds–




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As always, dear readers, welcome.

In an addition to an entry in Letters, the main portion of which has rather a murky history (see 217-218), but which the editor dates as “presumably written circa 1966”, Tolkien says that several features of The Lord of the Rings “still move me very powerfully”.  These features include being “most stirred by the sound of the horses of the Rohirrim at cockcrow”.

As this is one of our favorite parts of the book,



we would absolutely agree, but, as is so often the case, both with JRRT and with ourselves, we wondered why.

The easiest answer is that it’s a highly-dramatic moment:  the main gate of Minas Tirith is giving way under the blows of Grond, the orcs are about to pour in, and it looks like Aragorn and his companions won’t appear in time to save the situation.


We have been following the Rohirrim, of course, from their muster to their march


to their meeting with Ghan-buri-Ghan,


so the build is two-fold:  the attack, which is completely focused on breaking in, and the approach of the Rohirrim.  Thus, when it looks darkest, the charge is like sunlight breaking through heavy cloud.


This is a beginning, we thought, to why, but could there have been another reason for JRRT?

When Tolkien, growing up, thought of cavalry charges, he probably saw, in his mind’s eye, the glorious mounted attacks of Britain’s past, like the Scots Greys at Waterloo



or the 16th Lancers at Aliwal


or the Light Brigade at Balaclava.


In all of these, soldiers in bright-colored coats waved swords and lancers and dashed fearlessly against the enemy.  Even his toy soldiers would have had that same devil-may-care look


as did the real cavalry of his childhood,


but, when 1914 and the Great War came, soldiers put away those bright colors and put on khaki.


But did that wild courage have to be put away, as well?  In 1914, there were a few moments when even mud-colored mounted men had a moment of glory.


This wasn’t to last—at least on the Western Front and a major reason was this—


(Here’s a LINK to a clip from the film Warhorse, which shows the effect in rather a symbolic way, thank goodness!  We love horses and mourn their terrible losses through all of world history—they never asked to be part of human violence and, so often, their fate was to die because of it.  We also think that it’s just as well that the commander of this imaginary attack didn’t survive it—it’s absolutely inept, both in conception and its carrying-out and he would deserve to have been court-martialed.)

So, instead, those men dismounted and became infantry, fighting from hole in the ground to hole in the ground.


This was the world which JRRT


knew:  heavy guns, gas, and the rattle of machine guns, no place for wide double ranks of sabre-wavers.


There was at least one bright moment, but not on the Western Front.  Instead, it was in far-off Palestine, where, on 31 October, 1917, Australians and their horses swept over a line of Turkish trenches  at Beersheba in a charge very reminiscent of the 19th -century world.


Ironically, these were not cavalry at all, but Australian Light Horse—mounted infantry—who, lacking swords or sabres or lances, attacked using their long bayonets, instead.


(You can see this charge reenacted wonderfully in the 1987 Australian movie, The Lighthorsemen, one of our very favorite films of the Great War.


Here’s a LINK to the charge scene, before you see the whole film—but we recommend that you see that charge in context.)

On the whole, however, modern war had become one big, bloody ditch,


and victory came in mud-color and mass industrial slaughter.  Perhaps it was a relief to imagine another world, where brave men in armor, mounted on flying horses, still had a place?


As always, thanks for reading!