“Should you ask me, whence these stories?”

Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

Everybody who reads beyond The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings probably knows this passage from a 1955 letter to the poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973) :


“I mentioned Finnish, because that set the rocket off in its story.  I was immensely attracted by something in the air of the Kalevala, even in Kirby’s poor translation. I never learned  Finnish well enough to do more than plod through a bit of the original, like a schoolboy with Ovid; being mostly taken up with its effect on ‘my language’.” (Letters, 214)

Those same people will also know that the Kalevala is a collection of traditional Finnish mythological stories in verse stitched together into a sort of long epic-like thing by Elias Loennrot, (1802-1884)


a first version being published in 1835, but the longer and standard version in 1849.


Loennrot was, by profession, a doctor, but his hobby was collecting folklore and folksong, a pastime taken up by educated enthusiasts throughout western Europe during the Romantic Era. His informants were mainly country people, both in his district in Finland, then part of the Russian Empire as the Grand Duchy of Finland, and from rural areas which he would visit during his holidays.

One method of performing these songs was for two men to sit on a bench facing each other, to join crossed hands, and to recite back and forth.


There was a basic metre, called by metricists, trochaic tetrameter, which might sound like the Latin name for an exotic plant, but, if we take it apart we have:  tetrameter = four beats in a line; trochaic = having a troche = a foot which can be written like this:  DUM dum.

So, a line of trochaic tetrameter would look like this:  DUM dum DUM dum DUM dum DUM dum.

In Finnish folkverse, this could have a number of little variations, although there was a big one, as well:  sometimes there could be a break (metricists called this a “caesura”—from the Latin verb caedo, “to cut”) between the second and third feet, giving you: DUM dum DUM dum    DUM dum DUM dum.  If you would like to learn more, here’s a LINK which has some useful information about the verse of the poem: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalevala

We first met this verse form not in the Kalevala, but in a poem in English, by the famous 19th-century American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882).


Longfellow was the Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard from 1836 to 1854, when he retired to focus on his writing. His command of languages was impressive, including Latin (from boyhood), Spanish, French, Italian, German, Dutch, Danish, Icelandic, and Finnish. He was always in search of subjects, often choosing, for his longer works, North American ones. In 1855, he published Hiawatha,


based upon Native American mythology. (Say it “HEE-uh-wah-thuh”, by the way, as Longfellow explained in a letter.)  The metre wasn’t Native American, however, but Finnish.  Although he had some knowledge of the language, Longfellow had actually read a German translation, by Franz Anton Schiefner (1817-1879)


published in 1852. This translation kept the metre of the original and Longfellow clearly found that it suited his narrative purposes. Here are the opening lines—from which we took the title of this posting:

“Should you ask me, whence these stories?
Whence these legends and traditions,
With the odors of the forest
With the dew and damp of meadows,
With the curling smoke of wigwams,
With the rushing of great rivers,
With their frequent repetitions,
And their wild reverberations
As of thunder in the mountains?”

It’s interesting, then, that the Kalevala, which so enchanted the young Tolkien that he almost lost his scholarship at Oxford because of it (Letters, 87, 214-215), and which was “the original germ of the Silmarillion” (Letters, 86), provided metrical inspiration for Longfellow in one of his most famous works.

And Hiawatha was, in turn, the inspiration for another poem, by another famous (English) Victorian author, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, “Lewis Carroll” (1832-1898),.


the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865),


among other works.

Besides being a professor of mathematics and fantasy creator, Dodgson was also a keen amateur photographer.  Here’s his image of another poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892).


In 1869, he published Phantasmagoria and Other Poems, including a poem entitled “Hiawatha’s Photographing”—and you can see what he’s done, can’t you? In 1883, he republished it in another collection, Rhyme? And Reason?, with the poem illustrated by Arthur B Frost.  Following our theme of  Kalevala influences, we thought that, rather than summarize, we’d simply reprint it here—without the illustrations, which we don’t seem to be able to copy–in hopes to bring a little cheer to what is a pretty grim time.  This is from the 1884 American edition, the LINK to which is right here (where you can see the illustrations for yourself):  https://ia800209.us.archive.org/5/items/cu31924013341049/cu31924013341049.pdf

(Don’t skip the intro!)

Hiawatha’s Photographing Poem

[In an age of imitation, I can claim no special merit for this slight attempt at doing what is known to be so easy. Any fairly practised writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose, for hours together, in the easy running metre of ‘The Song of Hiawatha.’ Having, then, distinctly stated that I challenge no attention in the following little poem to its merely verbal jingle, I must beg the candid reader to confine his criticism to its treatment of the subject.]

From his shoulder Hiawatha

Took the camera of rosewood,

Made of sliding, folding rosewood;

Neatly put it all together.

In its case it lay compactly,

Folded into nearly nothing;

But he opened out the hinges,

Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,

Till it looked all squares and oblongs,

Like a complicated figure

In the Second Book of Euclid.


The camera

This he perched upon a tripod—

Crouched beneath its dusky cover—

Stretched his hand, enforcing silence—

Said, “Be motionless, I beg you!”

Mystic, awful was the process.

All the family in order

Sat before him for their pictures:

Each in turn, as he was taken,

Volunteered his own suggestions,

His ingenious suggestions.

First the Governor, the Father:

He suggested velvet curtains

Looped about a massy pillar;

And the corner of a table,

Of a rosewood dining-table.

He would hold a scroll of something,

Hold it firmly in his left-hand;

He would keep his right-hand buried

(Like Napoleon) in his waistcoat;

He would contemplate the distance

With a look of pensive meaning,

As of ducks that die in tempests.

Grand, heroic was the notion:

Yet the picture failed entirely:

Failed, because he moved a little,

Moved, because he couldn’t help it.


Next, his better half took courage;

She would have her picture taken.

She came dressed beyond description,

Dressed in jewels and in satin

Far too gorgeous for an empress.

Gracefully she sat down sideways,

With a simper scarcely human,

Holding in her hand a bouquet

Rather larger than a cabbage.

All the while that she was sitting,

Still the lady chattered, chattered,

Like a monkey in the forest.

“Am I sitting still?” she asked him.

“Is my face enough in profile?

Shall I hold the bouquet higher?

Will it come into the picture?”

And the picture failed completely.


Next the Son, the Stunning-Cantab:

He suggested curves of beauty,

Curves pervading all his figure,

Which the eye might follow onward,

Till they centered in the breast-pin,

Centered in the golden breast-pin.

He had learnt it all from Ruskin

(Author of ‘The Stones of Venice,’

‘Seven Lamps of Architecture,’

‘Modern Painters,’ and some others);

And perhaps he had not fully

Understood his author’s meaning;

But, whatever was the reason,

All was fruitless, as the picture

Ended in an utter failure.


Next to him the eldest daughter:

She suggested very little,

Only asked if he would take her

With her look of ‘passive beauty.’

Her idea of passive beauty

Was a squinting of the left-eye,

Was a drooping of the right-eye,

Was a smile that went up sideways

To the corner of the nostrils.

Hiawatha, when she asked him,

Took no notice of the question,

Looked as if he hadn’t heard it;

But, when pointedly appealed to,

Smiled in his peculiar manner,

Coughed and said it ‘didn’t matter,’

Bit his lip and changed the subject.

Nor in this was he mistaken,

As the picture failed completely.

So in turn the other sisters.


Last, the youngest son was taken:

Very rough and thick his hair was,

Very round and red his face was,

Very dusty was his jacket,

Very fidgety his manner.

And his overbearing sisters

Called him names he disapproved of:

Called him Johnny, ‘Daddy’s Darling,’

Called him Jacky, ‘Scrubby School-boy.’

And, so awful was the picture,

In comparison the others

Seemed, to one’s bewildered fancy,

To have partially succeeded.

Finally my Hiawatha

Tumbled all the tribe together,

(‘Grouped’ is not the right expression),

And, as happy chance would have it

Did at last obtain a picture

Where the faces all succeeded:

Each came out a perfect likeness.

Then they joined and all abused it,

Unrestrainedly abused it,

As the worst and ugliest picture

They could possibly have dreamed of.

‘Giving one such strange expressions—

Sullen, stupid, pert expressions.

Really any one would take us

(Any one that did not know us)

For the most unpleasant people!’

(Hiawatha seemed to think so,

Seemed to think it not unlikely).

All together rang their voices,

Angry, loud, discordant voices,

As of dogs that howl in concert,

As of cats that wail in chorus.

But my Hiawatha’s patience,

His politeness and his patience,

Unaccountably had vanished,

And he left that happy party.

Neither did he leave them slowly,

With the calm deliberation,

The intense deliberation

Of a photographic artist:

But he left them in a hurry,

Left them in a mighty hurry,

Stating that he would not stand it,

Stating in emphatic language

What he’d be before he’d stand it.

Hurriedly he packed his boxes:

Hurriedly the porter trundled

On a barrow all his boxes:

Hurriedly he took his ticket:

Hurriedly the train received him:

Thus departed Hiawatha.


Thanks for reading, as ever, stay well, and



“Get Up and Bar the Door!”

No, dear readers, that’s not directed at you—although, at the current moment in the world’s health, you could easily be forgiven if you thought that it was!

Instead, it’s the title of a well-known Child Ballad—Number 275.  (We occasionally mention these, from the giant collection (305 ballads with variants) by Professor FJ Child, entitled The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, in five volumes, published from 1882-1898—in ten parts.)


And we chose the title because this is a post which actually originally began with a look back at a recent, serious posting, in which we found ourselves in the mines of Moria, in the Chamber of Mazarbul, defending ourselves from an orc attack—

“Heavy feet were heard in the corridor.  Boromir flung himself against the door and heaved it to; he wedged it with broken sword-blades and splinters of wood.  The Company retreated to the other side of the chamber.  But they had no chance to fly yet.  There was a blow on the door that made it quiver; and then it began to grind slowly open, driving back the wedges.  A huge arm and shoulder with a dark skin of greenish scales, was thrust through the widening gap.  Then a great flat, toeless foot was forced through below.  There was a dead silence outside…

There was a crash on the door, followed by crash after crash.  Rams and hammers were beating against it.  It cracked and staggered back, and the opening grew suddenly wide.  Arrows came whistling in, but struck the northern wall, and fell harmlessly to the floor.  There was a horn-blast and a rush of feet, and orcs one after another leaped into the chamber.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum”)


We wondered, as we read this, whether somewhere in the back of Tolkien’s head there was another scene of people trapped in a room under attack?

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1886), the hero, David Balfour, is trapped in the cabin of a ship with a Scottish office in the service of France, Alan Breck Stewart.  They are heavily outnumbered, but they have seized the ship’s small supply of weapons and are about to defend themselves from an attack by the ship’s crew.

“It came all of a sudden when it did, with a rush of feet and a roar, and then a shout from Alan, and a sound of blows and some one crying out as if hurt. I looked back over my shoulder, and saw Mr. Shuan in the doorway, crossing blades with Alan.

“That’s him that killed the boy!” I cried.

“Look to your window!” said Alan; and as I turned back to my place, I saw him pass his sword through the mate’s body.

It was none too soon for me to look to my own part; for my head was scarce back at the window, before five men, carrying a spare yard for a battering-ram, ran past me and took post to drive the door in. I had never fired with a pistol in my life, and not often with a gun; far less against a fellow-creature. But it was now or never; and just as they swang the yard, I cried out: “Take that!” and shot into their midst.

I must have hit one of them, for he sang out and gave back a step, and the rest stopped as if a little disconcerted. Before they had time to recover, I sent another ball over their heads; and at my third shot (which went as wide as the second) the whole party threw down the yard and ran for it.

Then I looked round again into the deck-house. The whole place was full of the smoke of my own firing, just as my ears seemed to be burst with the noise of the shots. But there was Alan, standing as before; only now his sword was running blood to the hilt, and himself so swelled with triumph and fallen into so fine an attitude, that he looked to be invincible. Right before him on the floor was Mr. Shuan, on his hands and knees; the blood was pouring from his mouth, and he was sinking slowly lower, with a terrible, white face; and just as I looked, some of those from behind caught hold of him by the heels and dragged him bodily out of the round-house. I believe he died as they were doing it.” (Kidnapped, Chapter X, “The Siege of the Round-House”)


(This is an illustration by NC Wyeth, from his 1913 edition of the story.)


At present, we don’t find ourselves besieged by orcs or sailors, or even by boredom or “cabin fever”—the latter of which always makes us think of Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925), when his starving cabin mate begins to imagine him as a giant chicken—


and we hope that, by reading this and our other postings, we can help you to fight off boredom and “cabin fever”, too, if not orcs and sailors.

But what about the ballad?

It’s a simple story.  A farmwife is making puddings


when her husband tells her to get up and bar the door.


She refuses, saying that, as he seems to have the leisure, he should do it.  He refuses and a quarrel breaks out


which only ends when they agree that the next person who speaks will be obliged to do it.  They sit in silence so long that two thieves quietly slip in and proceed to rob the house—and neither husband nor wife says a word.  Finally, when one of the thieves proposes to kiss the wife, the husband loudly objects—thus being the first to speak and his wife then tells him:  “So, you get up and bar the door!”


A silly little song and perhaps just the thing for a such a time, when many of us are stuck indoors.  Here are three versions of the ballad, if you’re not familiar with it:

275A: Get Up and Bar the Door


275A.1  IT fell about the Martinmas time,

And a gay time it was then,

When our goodwife got puddings to make,

And she’s boild them in the pan.

275A.2  The wind sae cauld blew south and north,

And blew into the floor;

Quoth our goodman to our goodwife,

‘Gae out and bar the door.’

275A.3  hand is in my hussyfskap,

Goodman, as ye may see;

An it shoud nae be barrd this hundred year,

It’s no be barrd for me.’

275A.4  y made a paction tween them twa,

They made it firm and sure,

That the first word whaeer shoud speak,

Shoud rise and bar the door.

275A.5  Then by there came two gentlemen,

At twelve o clock at night,

And they could neither see house nor hall,

Nor coal nor candle-light.

275A.6  ‘Now whether is this a rich man’s house,

Or whether is it a poor?’

But neer a word wad ane o them speak,

For barring of the door.

275A.7  And first they ate the white puddings,

And then they ate the black;

Tho muckle thought the goodwife to hersel,

Yet neer a word she spake.

275A.8  Then said the one unto the other,

‘Here, man, tak ye my knife;

Do ye tak aff the auld man’s beard,

And I’ll kiss the goodwife.’

275A.9  ‘But there’s nae water in the house,

And what shall we do than?’

‘What ails ye at the pudding-broo,

That boils into the pan?’

275A.10 O up then started our goodman,

An angry man was he:

‘Will ye kiss my wife before my een,

And scad me wi pudding-bree?’

275A.11 Then up and started our goodwife,

Gied three skips on the floor:

‘Goodman, you’ve spoken the foremost word,

Get up and bar the door.’



275B: Get Up and Bar the Door


275B.1  THERE leeved a wee man at the fit o yon hill,

John Blunt it was his name, O

And he selld liquor and ale o the best,

And bears a wondrous fame. O

Tal lara ta lilt, tal lare a lilt,

Tal lara ta lilt, tal lara

275B.2  The wind it blew frae north to south,

It blew into the floor;

Says auld John Blunt to Janet the wife,

Ye maun rise up and bar the door.

275B.3  ‘My hans are in my husseyskep,

I canna weel get them free,

And if ye dinna bar it yersel

It’ll never be barred by me.’

275B.4  They made it up atween them twa,

They made it unco sure,

That the ane that spoke the foremost word

Was to rise and bar the door.

275B.5  There was twa travellers travelling late,

Was travelling cross the muir,

And they cam unto wee John Blunt’s,

Just by the light o the door.

275B.6  ‘O whether is this a rich man’s house,

Or whether is it a puir?’

But never a word would the auld bodies speak,

For the barring o the door.

275B.7  First they bad good een to them,

And syne they bad good morrow;

But never a word would the auld bodies speak,

For the barring o the door, O.

275B.8  First they ate the white puddin,

And syne they ate the black,

And aye the auld wife said to hersel,

May the deil slip down wi that!

275B.9  And next they drank o the liquor sea strong,

And syne they drank o the yill:

‘And since we hae got a house o our ain

I’m sure we may tak our fill.’

275B.10 It’s says the ane unto the ither,

Here, man, tak ye my knife,

An ye’ll scrape aff the auld man’s beard,

While I kiss the gudewife.

275B.11 ‘Ye hae eaten my meat, ye hae drucken my drink,

Ye’d make my auld wife a whore!’

‘John Blunt, ye hae spoken the foremost word,

Ye maun rise up and bar the door.’



275C: Get Up and Bar the Door


275C.1  THERE livd a man in yonder glen,

And John Blunt was his name; O

He maks gude maut and he brews gude ale,

And he bears a wondrous fame. O

275C.2  The wind blew in the hallan ae night,

Fu snell out oer the moor;

‘Rise up, rise up, auld Luckie,’ he says,

‘Rise up, and bar the door.’

275C.3  They made a paction tween them twa,

They made it firm and sure,

Whaeer sud speak the foremost word

Should rise and bar the door.

275C.4  Three travellers that had tint their gate,

As thro the hills they foor,

They airted by the line o light

Fu straught to Johnie Blunt’s door.

275C.5  They haurld auld Luckie out o her bed

And laid her on the floor,

But never a word auld Luckie wad say,

For barrin o the door.

275C.6  ‘Ye’ve eaten my bread, ye hae druken my ale,

And ye’ll mak my auld wife a whore!’

‘A ha, Johnie Blunt! ye hae spoke the first word,

Get up and bar the door.’



Thanks, as ever, for reading, stay well, and know that, barring (yep, a bad pun) unforeseen circumstances,






In case you don’t have your own copy of Kidnapped, here’s a LINK to an early American edition:  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/421/421-h/421-h.htm

A great read for all of us stay-at-homes!


Not So Dry As Tinder?

Welcome, as ever, dear readers.  We hope that you are well and happy in what, unless we make it otherwise, can be a gloomy time.

Our title this time is a kind of hope, based upon our subject, which is about one of our favorite fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen’s (1805-1875)


“The Tinderbox” (Fyrtoget, in Danish, which looks like it actually means “fire tinder”—more about “tinder” below).

(This image of HCA comes from a very interesting website, which we’ve just recently discovered.  Here’s a LINK, if you’d like to investigate it for yourself:  https://www.terriwindling.com/)

If you, like us, grew up in a world of safety matches,


(We have no idea why these are called “Double Happiness”, by the way—perhaps because, 1. when you strike them against the box, they actually light; 2. when you try to light a fire with them, they don’t simply wink out immediately, as we have often had happen to us?)

a “tinderbox” is something from the very far past.  After all, friction matches have been with us since their invention, by John Walker, in 1826.  Before such became common—and probably, in much of the world long after—the way to light a fire was to strike a piece of flint with a piece of steel,


causing a spark.


For handy carrying purposes, these two could be carried in a box, and, so that you always had something for the spark to set alight (and it could be any number of things, from moss to bits of fabric), you stuffed such things, called “tinder” (from the Old English verb tendan, “to kindle/alight/set alight”) into the box along with the flight and steel—and there was a “tinderbox”.



In the Andersen story, first published in 1836, when tinderboxes were still the method for lighting fires, the tinderbox is actually a magical one, as a soldier discovers, after he acquires one.  When he strikes a light once, twice, or three times, bigger and bigger dogs with bigger and bigger eyes appear and will fetch him anything he may wish.


The soldier has discovered this wonderful device when he was lowered into a hollow tree by a witch—but, in this posting, we’re not going to discuss the story as story, rather, when we did a little image-searching, what caught our attention was the soldier himself—how he was dressed.  If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that, along with the many other things we’ve taught and teach, we currently run a “History of Western Warfare” course and the look of soldiers through the ages interests us (as does dress in general).  We collected about two dozen images of the soldier hero from various tellings of the story and were interested to see the choices made for how he would be depicted.

First, however, how did the original author portray him?  What clues does he give us?  If we wanted a perfect picture, we would be disappointed, we’re afraid, as the details are few.  In the first paragraph, we are told that the soldier has a pack (tornyster) and a sabre (sabel).  A few paragraphs later, we are told that he fills his pockets (lommen) and then his kaskett, which, in modern Danish, means “hat/cap”, but we suspect, from the original French word, that, in 1836, this meant “shako”, a kind of tall, cylindrical military headgear, as the look of a Danish soldier then would have been something like this–


He also fills his boots (stovler).

So—HCA has told us that our soldier has (probably) a shako, a pack, something with pockets, boots, and he’s armed with a sabre.  As he has a pack, and he’s been walking along a country road, not riding, we assume that he’s an infantryman, and so that “sabre” is actually an infantry short sword (in French, sabre-briquet), which was rapidly disappearing from an infantryman’s weaponry by the time the story would have been written, but it would have looked like this—as still worn by a Danish Footguard today.


Now, let’s look at some images.  We thought that we would classify them not by publication date, but by period of dress, and the first one would be this—


Here, we’re looking at a later-medieval infantryman, a bit like this one—


wearing a breastplate and the distinctive “kettle helmet”.  No shako, pack, pockets, short sword, or boots.  It almost makes us wonder if the illustrator had actually read the story!

Here’s another—


By his clothing, we’ve moved forward a couple of centuries, this being an early-16th-century landsknecht,


Again—everything the author mentions seems to be missing.  We admire the art of it, but, again, has the artist spent any time with the text?

Our next illustration just seems very odd—the soldier appears to have turned into an early-17th-century musketeer—or perhaps it’s puss-in-boots?




We certainly don’t want to suggest in our little review that there is only one way to illustrate a story.  When it comes to Tolkien, for instance, we admire a wide variety of artists, from the first great illustrators, the Hildebrandts,


to Michael Hague


to the wonderful work of Ted Nasmith


to many others, including Lee, Howe, and Gordeev—and there are, indeed, many, and who knows who else is out there?  Our personal preference—and maybe this makes us a little old-fashioned—is for those illustrations which stick closest to what we understand Tolkien was presenting to us and we feel the same about HCA’s (fragmentary) description.  For example, here’s what appears, by its style, to be a later-19th-century depiction of the first meeting of the witch and the soldier—


Here you see the shako, the pack, and, in this case, what appears to be a literal (cavalry) sabre.   Even more convincing—and we’ll stress, to us—is this 2007 view.  (This is Stephen Mitchell’s version, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline)


As we said, we found about two dozen different illustrations, and those were just of the soldier and the witch.  For fun, go to your usual image search engine and see what you find that pleases you:  hopefully, we have kindled a little flame of interest with this posting?

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Stay well,




If you don’t have a copy of “The Tinderbox” at hand, here’s a LINK to a translation:  https://www.andersenstories.com/en/andersen_fairy-tales/the_tinderbox

The same site gave us the Danish original and we apologize to any Danish reader for any mistakes made, being only beginners in that excellent language!

Messages of Doom

Messages of Doom


As always, welcome, dear readers.  We are optimists by nature and we want to assure you that, in this time of world turbulence, our title was not meant to cast a shadow—rather, we hope to distract you with several of what we think are slightly spooky stories from the past, both historical and fictional, so read on and see.

When we were little, we once read a brief article about something called “the Lost Colony”.

In 1587, a small English colony was established on Roanoke Island on the coast of what is now North Carolina.


It wasn’t the first attempt to do this, but those earlier attempts had been unsuccessful and, as this version wasn’t doing very well, the governor, John White, sailed back to England the same year, hoping to speed up further supplies and drum up more support.  Unfortunately, the war with Spain, which led to the attempt by the Spanish to invade England the next year,


delayed him until 1590 and, when he finally managed to return, he found the place empty, with only a single word “Croatoan” carved on one of the posts of the little fort the colonists had built.


White assumed that this meant that, for some reason, the colonists had moved to the island of Croatoan (also the name of a local Native American tribe), farther south, but, after some tentative investigating, White’s ship—on which he was only an important passenger—set sail for the Caribbean, the promise being that it would return the next year.  Storms drove the ship off course and, eventually White found himself once more in England.  There were several failed attempts to mount a search expedition in the years following, and a number of English settlers to the north, in modern Virginia, heard garbled stories, but no one was ever seen or heard from again and that single word, “Croatoan”, has remained to haunt people ever since.

It has certainly haunted us and it has made us think of other haunting messages.  One of these is this, sent on June 25, 1876—


In case the handwriting/s is/are a little difficult (there are two of them), it says:  “Benteen.  Come on.  Big village.  Be quick.  Bring packs.  P.S. Bring packs.  W.W. Cook.”

The “Benteen” referred to was Captain Frederick Benteen (1834-1898),


the “Big village” was the combined village of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors and their families being sought in the summer of 1876 by various units of the US Army,


the “packs” were containers of spare ammunition being carried on pack mules,


and “W.W. Cook” was what the army called an “adjutant”, an officer-assistant to a superior officer.


In this case, the superior officer was Lt. Colonel George Custer (1839-1876),


a one-time hero in the US Civil War,


where he rose to a very high rank.  After the war, when the Army was drastically cut, Custer stayed on, but at a much lower rank, moving from the command of a division of cavalry (many units) to the command of a single unit, the Seventh Cavalry.  Now, in the summer of 1876, Custer was in charge of one arm of a much bigger push to deal with the two most powerful tribes on the northern plains, the Lakota and the Cheyenne.  He had been ordered to search for them and had just found them.  To aid in that search, Custer had divided his command into three elements and now, having spotted what he believed was an enemy camp, he was trying to pull the third element, in the form of Benteen’s command, to join the other two, along with the mules carrying the spare ammunition.  Instead, the second element was driven off and the first element, led by Custer himself, went down to defeat

image10custer (2).jpg

at the hands of a superior number of Lakota and Cheyenne, when the camp turned out to be much larger than Custer had anticipated.


Although that note reached Benteen, he did not immediately follow orders, but advanced slowly, missed being killed with Custer and his whole detachment of over 200 men, and saved that note—another haunting message of doom:  like a letter asking for help sealed in a bottle which never floated to shore.

This bring us to our third.  The previous two were historical, this third came from the mind of a man about whom we often write—


Gandalf has led the Fellowship


to the mines of Moria


Now, deep within, they come to a chamber




which appears to be strewn with wreckage, including a tomb and the remains of a book.  The inscription on the tomb reads:  “Balin son of Fundin Lord of Moria”, indicating that an important dwarf, and an old friend of Bilbo, lay there, but wondering why set the Fellowship to searching “for anything that would give them tidings of Balin’s fate, or show what had become of his folk.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum”)  A quick look-round revealed to them, “…many recesses cut in the rock of the walls, and in them were large, iron-bound chests of wood.  All had been broken and plundered; but beside the shattered lid of one there lay the remains of a book.  It had been slashed and stabbed and partly burned, and it was so stained with black and other dark marks like old blood that little of it could be read.”


Gandalf can still make out things here and there, however:  “It seems to be a record of the fortunes of Balin’s folk…I guess that it began with their coming to Dimrill Dale nigh on thirty years ago… “

He continues until we see this:

“It is grim reading…I fear their end was cruel.  Listen! ‘We cannot get out.  We cannot get out…They have taken the Bridge and the second hall..We cannot get out.  The end comes,’ and then ‘drums, drums in the deep.’  I wonder what that means.  The last thing written is in a trailing scrawl of elf-letters:  ‘They are coming.’ “

In the case of the Lost Colony, there is simply a single word and an end, at least until archaeological research may point in new directions.  Neither Benteen nor packs came to Custer, and we certainly know his and his men’s fate.


For the Fellowship, however, the past will now repeat itself:

“Gandalf had hardly spoken these words, when there came a great noise:  a rolling Boom that seemed to come from depts far below, and to tremble in the stone at their feet…Then there came an echoing blast:  a great horn was blown in the hall, and answering horns and harsh cries were heard further off.  There was a hurrying sound of many feet.

‘They are coming!’ cried Legolas.

‘We cannot get out,’ said Gimli.”

And now, trapped in the Chamber of Mazarbul, those words come back not only to haunt us readers, but the very characters we’re reading about, who are about to have a life-and-death struggle on their hands.


With a small shiver, we thank you, as ever, for reading.  Stay well, and, as we always say



Going Underground

Welcome, dear readers, as always, but, although the title of this posting might suggest taking cover during this time of worldwide illness, we persist in staying calm and remaining aboveground and writing more about subjects we—and, we hope you—find interesting.

We are about to teach The Hobbit again—although this time, not being sitting in a classroom with about 20 students, talking about what we’ve been reading, but somehow on-line, which is not very happy-making, as we really enjoy the always-intriguing reactions and questions which come from in-class discussion.

One observation from last term’s Hobbit reading has stuck with us:  just how much of the dramatic action takes place underground—and there are also a number of like scenes, also very dramatic scenes, in The Lord of the Rings, as well.

We started adding them up and found, in The Hobbit:

  1. the world of the goblins under the Misty Mountains, where Gandalf kills the goblin king


and Bilbo finds the Ring and meets Gollum.


  1. in Mirkwood, the caves where the dwarves are kept prisoner by Thranduil, the king of the Forest Elves


until Bilbo frees them with his barrel-riding.


  1. the tunnels under the Lonely Mountain


where Bilbo and the dwarves must deal with Smaug.


In The Lord of the Rings, we find:

  1. Moria, with its mysterious western door,


the chamber of Mazarbul,


and the Balrog.


  1. the Pathways of the Dead


  1. and the area around Cirith Ungol, where Shelob has her lair.


Darkness, often narrow or treacherous places, full of fear–it might be supposed that Tolkien was a claustrophobe–


until you read this letter from 1940, in which he tells us of having made several visits—one in 1916—to some very famous caves (in this letter, he’s replying to someone who has asked about the caverns at Helm’s Deep):

“It may interest you to know that the passage was based upon the caves in Cheddar Gorge and was written just after I had revisited these in 1940 but was still coloured by my memory of them much early before they became so commercialized.  I had been there during my honeymoon nearly 30 years before.”  (Letters, 407)

Cheddar Gorge is in Somerset, in southwest England and is famous for its caves–


as well as its cheese.


We can deduce, then, that, in fact, JRRT was interested in caves and enjoyed them.

Scary caves go back farther in his life, however.  We would suggest from childhood, when he read, one, and possibly two, stories by the once-popular Victorian children’s author, George MacDonald (1824-1905).


These books, The Princess and the Goblin (1872)


and The Princess and Curdy (1883),


as the titles suggest, have to do with the adventures of a princess, her friend, Curdy, and the swarms of goblins who live in a warren of caves below the palace.  JRRT himself confessed, in a 1938 letter published in The Observer, to MacDonald’s influence:

“As for the rest of the tale it is…derived from (previously digested) epic, mythology, and fairy-story—not, however, Victorian in authorship, as a rule to which George Macdonald [sic] is the chief exception.”

(Letters, 31)

For later dark underground influences, we might add two spots in Beowulf:   the lair of Grendel, which is not only underground, but underwater,


and the tumulus in which the (unnamed) dragon lives, the slaying of which causes the death of Beowulf.


Perhaps the most traumatic influence might be what was a traumatic experience for many more than JRRT.

In the summer of 1916, Second Lieutenant JRR Tolkien


arrived at the Western Front, a subterranean land of trenches which cut up the world into endless crisscrosses of deep, often elaborate ditches with thickets of barbed wire in front of them,


protecting soldiers on both sides from the effects of heavy artillery


and machine guns,


in a crooked line which stretched for nearly 500 miles from Switzerland to the North Sea.


When he arrived, he was just in time to take part in a massive attack on a portion of the German lines in an assault which is now called the Battle of the Somme.  This was a tremendous effort which cost the British on the first day alone a total of over 57,000 casualties.


To soften up the enemy lines, the British had dug tunnels below them at various points,


filled them with explosives, called “mines”, and set them off just before the attacks.


Tolkien, as a signals officer—someone who dealt with communications after the first wave of attackers—


wouldn’t have been involved in mines or the initial assault, but would have followed behind, climbing into the enemy’s trenches to set up communication facilities after the attack had moved forward.  He would certainly have seen these underground burrows, some of them extremely elaborate,



and perhaps childhood reading, the Cheddar gorge, and the experience of the Great War were all in his head when he began his first novel by placing his hero in a hole in the ground, then putting him back underground again and again?


Thanks, as ever, for reading.  Stay well, dear readers, with




Following the Signs

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

This posting started with a signpost.  In the UK, this can be called a fingerpost, like


this wooden one, a very old one, where you can see directions and mileage from the point where the post was planted.  Where we began, there is a finger, but:

“Suddenly a tall pillar loomed up before them.  It was black; and set upon it was a great stone carved and painted in the likeness of a long White Hand.  Its finger pointed north.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 8, “The Road to Isengard”)

Gandalf, Denethor, Aragorn, and their company have ridden north from Helm’s Deep, passing into Nan Curunir, “The Wizard’s Vale”:

“After they had ridden for some miles, the highway became a wide street, paved with great flat stones, squared and laid with skill; no blade of grass was seen in any joint.  Deep gutters, filled with trickling water, ran down on either side.”

If we were asked what JRRT had in mind here, we would say at once, “it’s a Roman road, like this one”—


which, if you could see it in cross-section, would look like this—


The Romans had mileposts, too, a bit like signposts.  This is the first one on the oldest Roman road, the Via Appia, and the long inscription tells us who put it up (the Emperor Nerva—96-98AD) and who restored it (the Emperor Vespasian—117-138AD), but also how many (Roman) miles it was from there to the center of Rome:  1.


It’s interesting, then, to see that the fingerpost which Gandalf & Co encounter has no inscription at all, its information seeming to consist only of the indication of a direction, north.   As we thought about it, however, it occurred to us to ask:  are we ever shown any public inscriptions in Middle-earth?  And, if there were any, where are they?   We could think of only two, and neither on a road.  The first was on the western gate of Moria, with the command which puzzled Gandalf–


the other was above the Dark Door, the entrance to the Paths of the Dead (this is a sketch by John Howe)


where we’re only told that “Signs and figures were carved above its wide arch too dim to read”.

With no more information than a direction, we are led northwards:

“Beneath the mountain’s arm within the Wizard’s Vale through years uncounted had stood that ancient place that Men called Isengard.  Partly it was shaped in the making of the mountains, but mighty works the Men of Westernesse had wrought there of old, and Saruman had dwelt there long and had not been idle.”


Long before Saruman arrived, those Men of Westernesse hadn’t been idle, either:

“A great ring-wall of stone, like towering cliffs, stood out from the shelter of the mountain-side, rom which it ran and then returned again.”

In trying to picture this, we thought of Iron Age hill forts, like Castle Ring, whose walls were of earth, rather than stone, but extensive, all the same.


“One entrance only was there made in it, a great arch delved in the southern wall.  Here through the black rock a long tunnel had been hewn, closed at either end with mighty doors of iron…One who passed in and came at length out of the echoing tunnel, beheld a plain, a great circle, somewhat hollowed like a vast shallow bowl, a mile it measured from rim to rim.”

Tunnels like this may be seen in more modern fortresses, like Ehrenbreitstein, in Germany.


But what has Saruman been up to?

“Once it had been green and filled with avenues, and groves of fruitful trees, watered by streams that flowed from the mountains to a lake.  But no green thing grew there in the latter days of Saruman.  The roads were paved with stone-flags, dark and hard; and beside their borders instead of trees there marched long lines of pillars, some of marble, some of copper and of iron, joined by heavy chains.”

Here, we think of what are called allees, long walks between rows of trees of the sort you can see in Europe—


which we juxtapose with the Hildebrandt’s portrait of Saruman.


That vast circle is still too green in their depiction, however, as we read on:

“Many houses there were, chambers, halls, and passages, cut and tunneled back into the walls upon their inner side, so that all the open circle was overlooked by countless windows and dark doors…The plain, too, was bored and delved.  Shafts were driven deep into the ground; their upper ends were covered by low mounds and domes of stone, so that in the moonlight the Ring of Isengard looked like a graveyard of unquiet dead.”

A very vivid image!


But too peaceful for the activity found there seemingly 24/7:

“Iron wheels revolved there endlessly, and hammers thudded.  At night plumes of vapor streamed from the vents, lit from beneath with red light, or blue, or venomous green.”

In a posting some time ago, we likened Mordor to the old industrial area in England, the Black Country, and this description certainly brings that to mind—


But in the center is this:

“There stood a tower of marvelous shape.  It was fashioned by the builders of old, who smoothed the Ring of Isengard, and yet it seemed a thing not made by the craft of Men, but riven from the bones of the earth in black and gleaming hard:  four mighty piers of many-sided stone were welded into one, but near the summit they opened into gaping horns, their pinnacles sharp as the points of spears, keen-edged as knives.”

As always, we think about where all of this may have come from.  JRRT was a medievalist, after all, and medieval models must always have been in his mind.  The idea of a circuit of walls with a central citadel says to us a place like Old Sarum


or perhaps the Tower of London—


and the White Tower at the Tower of London, although the wrong color, shares a definite similarity with Orthanc, being square, with four corner towers.


Along with his written description, however, JRRT has left us some small images of what he had in mind, like—


and this drawing, in particular, brought to mind something we suspect he might have rejected, but which, to us, bears a certain resemblance, the unfinished Cathedral of the Holy Family, in Barcelona, Catalunya—


We are still standing at that signpost, however, and something about it suggests is that, for all of the work of the Men of Westernesse and for all of Saruman’s alterations, all may not be right in the Wizard’s Vale:

“Now Gandalf rode to the great pillar of the Hand, and passed it, and as he did so the Riders saw to their wonder that the Hand appeared no longer white.  It was stained as with dried blood; and looking closer they perceived that its nails were red.  Unheeding Gandalf rode on into the mist, and reluctantly they followed him.  All about them now, as if there had been a sudden flood, wide pools of water lay beside the road, filling the hollows, and rills went trickling down among the stones.”

Perhaps, instead of the White Hand, this would have been a better signpost?


Thanks, as ever, for reading and



Ram’s Gate

Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

In our last, we discussed Gandalf’s confrontations with evil, including his meeting with the head of the Nazgul, the Witch King of Angmar, at the main gate of Minas Tirith.  As we think about it, we believe that there’s a bit more to say—but with JRRT, isn’t there always?


In the background of this Ted Nasmith picture, you can see what has broken open the gate:  the giant battering ram, Grond.  Here is an image of it from the Jackson films—


and here is Tolkien’s description—which is, although grim, in a much lower key, we would say:

“Great engines crawled across the field; and in the midst was a huge ram, great as a forest-tree a hundred feet in length, swinging on mighty chains.  Long had it been forging in the dark smithies of Mordor, and its hideous head, founded of black steel, was shaped in the likeness of a ravening wolf, on it spells of ruin lay.  Grond they named it, in memory of the Hammer of the Underworld of old.  Great beasts drew it, orcs surrounded it, and behind walked mountain-trolls to wield it.”  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”)

At its simplest, a battering ram is just a heavy log used by a gang of men, soldiers or otherwise, to bash a wall


or bash in a gate.


(You’ll notice that the first of these two images has an actual ram’s head on it.  This would give the point of the battering ram a harder surface and probably is a reference to the way two rams will actually fight, butting heads against each other.)

Grond is a more complex ram, however, being suspended on chains so that the weight of the swing of it will increase its force.  Here is a model of the ram from the film, to make it a bit clearer.


And here is an illustration of a medieval ram so that you can see how it works.


Rams as an engine of war have been around a long time.  The Egyptians used a very simple version,


while the Assyrians employed a more complex model.


Both of these, you’ll notice—and you can see it especially in the Assyrian example—aren’t actually attempting to slam into the wall.  Rather, they are working to drive a wedge among the wall’s blocks—probably in both cases of mud brick—so that the upper face of the wall will collapse in their direction and, with any luck, pile up enough fallen material that the besiegers might even be able to scramble up it and into the city.

You’ll notice, too, that the Assyrian ram is covered in something—possibly animal hides?  These would not only protect those inside from missiles shot or thrown from the wall above, but would also (those who constructed it must have hoped) make it somewhat nonflammable.  In fact, here’s another illustration where the besieged are trying to throw torches at it and the besiegers are attempting to keep the covering wet in return.  (JRRT is aware of this—as he says of Grond:  “Upon its housing no fire would catch…”)


The Assyrians also appear to have used an actual battering ram—this image showing one aimed at a gate,


as is Grond.  And this is the Witch King’s target:

“It was against the Gate that he would throw his heaviest weight.  Very strong it might be, wrought of steel and iron, and guarded with towers and bastions of indomitable stone, yet it was the key, the weakest point in all that high and impenetrable wall.”

Tolkien appears to have left us only a few images of Minas Tirith, and the two we’ve seen are very rudimentary (this is the only one we could post), and


probably made to help him to visualize the position of the seven gates.  As far as we know, he has not left us any image of the Gate itself, except the description above.  In the Jackson films, the gate has been elaborated—


The outermost frame is in the style known as Romanesque.  Here is a good example from the church of Santa Maria Seu d’Urgell, in Catalonia.


Just under the arch of the Gate at Minas Tirith is the suggestion of another part of a gate structure, a portcullis.  Ordinarily, this would be a full-size inner gate behind the main gate and would act as a secondary defense.


It would be worked by a system of pulleys and weights, as in this diagram.


As this isn’t mentioned in Tolkien’s description, however, we presume that the Gate of Minas Tirith isn’t backed up by one—and it doesn’t appear in the Jackson films, only this hint of one.

Tolkien says that the Gate itself is made of “steel and iron” and seems to lack any features.  As you can see, the gate of Jackson’s Minas Tirith has figures upon it, like certain elaborate medieval cathedral doors.


Such figures are usually part of the outer structure of the door, being cast bronze, like the famous door leaves from the church of St Michael in Hildesheim, in Germany.


We don’t know who the figures are meant to be on Jackson’s gate, although it’s clear that some are warriors, being in armor, and there is one woman, at least, in the top row.  Founders of Gondor?

Whoever they were meant to be, even if they had been on Tolkien’s Gate, they would have been no defense against what happened next:

“The drums rolled and rattled.  With a vast rush Grond was hurled forward by huge hands.  It reached the Gate.  It swung.  A deep boom rumbled through the City like thunder running in the clouds.  But the doors of iron and posts of steel withstood the stroke.

Then the Black Captain rose in his stirrups and cried aloud in a dreadful voice, speaking in some forgotten tongue words of power and terror to rend both heart and stone.”

We have seen earlier—and written earlier—about the use of some sort of explosive device both at Helm’s Deep and at the Rammas Echor, the outward defensive wall of the Pelennor, the far boundary of the fields outside Minas Tirith.  Here, however, something else is at work, magic of some sort.  Grond has had “spells of ruin” laid upon it and now:

“Thrice he cried.  Thrice the great ram boomed.  And suddenly upon the last stroke the Gate of Gondor broke.  As if stricken by some blasting spell it burst asunder:  there was a flash of searing lightning, and the doors tumbled in riven fragments to the ground.”

All of which brings us back to our last posting—

“In rode the Lord of the Nazgul.  A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair.  In rode the Lord of the Nazgul, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face.

All save one.”


What an ending—or, really, a beginning.  As we can’t better it, we’ll simply say thanks, as always, for reading and




As ever, dear readers, welcome.

We recently received an e-mail from our dear friend, Erik, which included a new Ted Nasmith illustration of Gandalf opposing the Witch King of Angmar at the ruined main gate of Minas Tirith (see The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”).


As Ted Nasmith is one of our favorite Tolkien artists, this would have been a treat in itself, but Erik included a quotation from the artist, which we present here since, so far, this is the only direct description we’ve seen of such an artist at work–

“I’m pleased to present a newly completed commission, ‘Gandalf Defies the Witch King’. A lot of thought went into this work, and it was more focused and difficult than some. How to capture the intensity of this scene, where the wizard is described as “silent and still”, so I’ve used perspective (seeing from a low angle), and the wizard’s staff alit to evoke his power and steadiness in the face of the onslaught by Sauron’s minions and their Captain.

The riven doors of Minas Tirith were another concern. A blow powerful enough to shatter iron was tricky to depict, and I spent a good deal of effort showing the imagined effect, and recognized that it in itself gave the viewer a perfect metaphor for the destruction and violence the Enemy was bringing to the war.

Pippin is not described in detail at this point, but was present. It is impressed upon us that anyone in the vicinity of the Witch King was seized with intense terror, but I chose that Pippin, a Guard of Minas Tirith in uniform, would need to be at least standing, if frightened, waiting to confront Gandalf with the news he brings so urgently about what was unfolding far above at Rath Dinan, with Faramir and his father Denethor. And yes, I included the rooster which heralds the dawn, and whose crowing is answered by the horns of Rohan.”

Throughout The Lord of the Rings, we see numerous Gandalfs:  the wise counselor of Bilbo and Frodo, in turn, the scholar of the Ring, the hardy traveler in the trip south, the mysterious figure in white seemingly returned from the dead, but a role which he assumes only a few times is that of which he really is, one of the Maiar, spirits sent from Valinor to Middle-earth to combat the influence of Sauron, himself one of them before his corruption by Melkor.  In this role, Gandalf speaks with an authority he rarely uses.  We see this the first time when the Fellowship is desperately trying to escape the Mines of Moria and they are being pursued by orcs and trolls—and something more:

“The ranks of the orcs had opened, and they crowded away, as if they themselves were afraid.  Something was coming up behind them.  What it was could not be seen:  it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it.

It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it.  Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure.  The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and a black smoke swirled in the air.  Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it.  In its right hand was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left it held a whip of many thongs.

‘Ai! ai! wailed Legolas.  ‘A Balrog!  A Balrog is come!’ “ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum”)

As Gandalf encourages the others to run—“Over the bridge!  Fly!…This is a foe beyond any of you.  I must hold the narrow way.  Fly!”—he himself stands in the middle of the bridge, “leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand Glamdring gleamed, cold and white.”

There are many depictions of this—and here are just a few.  First, by the Hildebrandts,


then a rough sketch by John Howe


and some preliminary work by Alan Lee



image5lee.jpgand finally two complete pictures by Ted Nasmith.


image7tn.jpgIt interests us to see what will be the focus of the illustration.  In JRRT’s complete description of the scene, we see the two figures juxtaposed when Gandalf challenges him:

“The Balrog made no answer  The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew  It stepped forward slowly on to the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone:  grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.”

In the images we’ve selected, the focus is generally on the physical confrontation, but the first of the two Nasmiths shows a defiant Gandalf, mirroring his actual challenge:

“ ‘You cannot pass,’ he said.  The orcs stood still and a dead silence fell.  ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor.  You cannot pass.  The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun.  Go back to the Shadow!  You cannot pass.’ “

Here, for a moment, Gandalf sheds his pose as an elderly counselor, revealing that he is one of the Maiar, a servant of the divine figure Eru Illuvatar, who had placed that Secret Fire at the heart of Arda, or earth.  The Balrog is itself a Maia, but Gandalf then makes a strong contrast between them.  “Anor” is the sun, the flame of which burns away the shadows.  “Udun” presents two possibilities.  In the present, it’s a valley on the northwest side of Mordor, whose exit is the Black Gate, thus tying the Balrog to Sauron.  In the past, it’s a version of the name of a stronghold of the rebel Vala, Melkor, Utumno.  Thus, Gandalf is implying that, even though a Maia, the Balrog has less power as servant of the “Shadow”, that is, Sauron, who has lost his previous form and only appears as the searching eye or, at his fall, as “a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 4, “The Field of Cormallen”) before collapsing and disappearing.

The second time Gandalf reveals himself, it is in the scene with which we began.

“And suddenly upon the last stroke the Gate of Gondor broke.  As if stricken by some blasting spell it burst asunder; there was a flash of searing lightning, and the doors tumbled in riven fragments to the ground.

In rode the Lord of the Nazgul.  A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair.  In rode the Lord of the Nazgul, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face.

All save one.  There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax.”

(The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”).

We’ve already seen Nasmith’s illustration, but here are several more.

The first we believe is by the Hildebrandts


and the second is by Angus McBride, mostly known as a military artist, but who also did a series of Tolkien illustrations.


The difference in focus is clear:  the Hildebrandts want us to see Gandalf facing the Witch King, with all of his servants behind and the gate barely there at all.  In the McBride, Gandalf is placed directly on top of the fragments of the gate, sharing the focus, his hand raised to block the King, who is framed in the arch of the gate.  In the Nasmith,


the gate has become much more developed and detailed, being a long passageway, into which the King has ridden, behind him Grond, the ram which has (perhaps along with the power of the King?) destroyed the gate.  The center of the picture is Gandalf and, in contrast to all of that detail—from the elaborate ram in the background to the fragments of the gate and even to the King’s horse’s breastband—he is the picture of simplicity:  Shadowfax has no tack (saddle, saddle cloth, halter, reins) and Gandalf himself is dressed simply in a long, white robe.

Against this are Gandalf’s words, not quite so revealing as those he spoke to the Balrog, but with the same force—here not in sun/flame imagery, but in prophecy:

“ ‘You cannot enter here,’ said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted.  ‘Go back to the abyss prepared for you!  Go back!  Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your master.  Go!’ ”

In return, the Witch King laughs and threatens, but the simple crowing of a cock—and then the sound of distant horns—both reassure us that dawn is coming and the Shadow to which Gandalf presents a contrast:  Witch King black to Gandalf white, will soon be swept away.

Thanks, as ever, for reading and, as always,



A Sword Upstairs

When I was young,
I had not given a penny for a song
Did not the poet Sing it with such airs
That one believed he had a sword upstairs…

WB Yeats “All Things Can Tempt Me” from Responsibilities and Other Poems (1916)

Welcome, dear readers, as always.  In this posting, we want to think out loud about swords—actually, about one in particular, as named by Bilbo Baggins in Chapter Eight of The Hobbit (“Flies and Spiders”), when having killed a giant spider, he says to it “I will give you a name…and I shall call you Sting.”  As it appears in The Hobbit, and then in The Lord of the Rings, we wondered whether we might see its use or abandonment as somehow symbolic of stages of growth in the lives of its owners, defining or redefining those who wield it.

From his childhood and beyond, Tolkien would have been familiar with swords, as they appear in virtually every fairy tale and heroic story he had ever read:  what heroic character would be without one?

There’s the sword “made by giants” which Beowulf pulls down from a wall in Grendel’s lair to put an end to Grendel’s mother.


There’s the sword which Arthur pulled out of a stone/anvil and the very pulling of which proved his right to rule England.


(See here TH White’s wonderful 1938 novel about the young Arthur, The Sword in the Stone,


which, adapted, would later form part of his longer volume The Once and Future King (1958).  There’s also a Disney animated feature based upon the book, but we’ve never found it so good as the book itself.)





And there’s the second Arthurian sword, Excalibur, which comes from a lake and must be returned at Arthur’s death.


(For another view of Arthur’s heritage and power, revealed by his sword, see this LINK, in which characters from another version of the Arthur story have something to say:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2c-X8HiBng )

Then there is the sword Gram, which appears in the story of Sigurd and the dragon, Fafnir, a story which Tolkien probably first encountered in Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book (1890), which we know that he read as a child.


You can have your own copy of this book—from which Tolkien may also have unconsciously gotten the name “Moria”, as well—at this LINK:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/540/540-h/540-h.htm.

As a medievalist, Tolkien could hardly have escaped the story of Tristan and Isolde, in which Tristan wounds an Irish knight and is identified later in the story by the fact that a piece of Tristan’s blade has remained in the knight.


(There are a number of early versions of the Tristan and Isolde story, but a familiar one would be that in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), Volume I, Book VIII.  Here’s a LINK:  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1251/1251-h/1251-h.htm)

Even into the age of gunpowder, there are still swords everywhere in literature—in Shakespeare (this is from Romeo and Juliet, c.1595)


and in 19th-century fiction, like The Three Musketeers (1844-45).


and Kidnapped (1886).


Although they were by then antiquated (and then prohibited by regulation from the battlefield), even British Army officers were still required to purchase them in the Great War—this is the model 1897 with which Tolkien in 1916


would have had to outfit himself


so that he would have looked like these officers.


Bilbo’s Sting was acquired in a much more casual way.  After the trolls had been tricked by Gandalf to expose themselves to sunlight and therefore were turned to stone,


Gandalf prodded the dwarves into locating the trolls’ hideout.  Inside, among other things, they found:

“…several swords of various makes, shapes, and sizes…Gandalf and Thorin each took one of these, and Bilbo took a knife in a leather sheath.  It would have made only a tiny pocket-knife for a troll, but it was as good as a short sword for the hobbit.”  (The Hobbit, Chapter Two, “Roast Mutton”)

There is more to this knife, as Bilbo discovers when, after being left behind in the hollows under the mountains, he draws it:

“It shone pale and dim before his eyes.  ‘So it is an elvish blade, too,’ he thought.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark”)

As the story continues, Bilbo finds more uses for it—to keep Gollum at a distance


and to deal with the giant spiders of Mirkwood,


and it’s here that we see Bilbo at his boldest physically—which makes it an appropriate moment to give his little sword a fierce little name.

Bilbo has an heroic moment with his weapon in his struggle with the spiders, rescuing the dwarves, but it’s clear that, although heroes in literature traditionally have swords, swords do not make heroes.  In the Battle of the Five Armies, Bilbo makes a disappearance, rather than an appearance, and we hear no more of Sting in The Hobbit until, in the last chapter of the book, we learn that, finally returning to Bag End, “His sword he hung over the mantelpiece.” (The Hobbit, Chapter Nineteen, “The Last Stage”)

This is not the end of the story of Sting, however, which will have a second—really third life, as it appears to have been made in Gondolin for the Goblin Wars many years before, since it is associated with Thorin’s (and Gandalf’s) sword, which “had killed hundreds of goblins in its time, when the fair elves of Gondolin hunted them in the hills or did battle before their walls.” (The Hobbit, Chapter Four, “Over Hill and Under Hill”)


(Gondolin by Kenneth Sofia)

This third life, in the hands of Frodo, parallels, to a degree, Bilbo’s experience, but the little sword’s ultimate fate is more complex than the act of simply being hung up at the story’s end.

It begins this life, however, with its previous owner, Bilbo, about to depart from the Shire after his notorious birthday party vanishing act:

“Then he put on quickly some old untidy garments, and fastened round his waist a worn leather belt  On it he hung a short sword in a battered black-leather scabbard.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter One, “A Long-Expected Party”)

Sting, then, will travel to Rivendell with Bilbo, but not remain there.  As the new Fellowship is about to leave Rivendell years later, Bilbo:

“…took from the box a small sword in an old shabby leathern scabbard.  Then he drew it, and its polished and well-tended blade glittered suddenly, cold and bright.  ‘This is Sting,’ he said, and thrust it with little effort deep into a wooden beam.  ‘Take it, if you like.  I shan’t want it again, I expect.’

Frodo accepted it gratefully.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Ring Goes South”)

Although he has gladly accepted it, Frodo, like Bilbo before him, will not be a very active fighter with Sting.  He will stab a goblin in the foot (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum”), but, otherwise, it will be Sam who will employ it, temporarily defeating and driving off Shelob with it, (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 10, “The Choices of Master Samwise”) then wounding an orc named Snaga, who falls through an open trapdoor to his death. (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”)

Sam continues to carry Sting all the way to Mt Doom, but something has happened to Frodo during that long journey and it reveals itself in “The Scouring of the Shire”, the next-to-last chapter in the story.  Things in the Shire have not gone well in the year Frodo and his friends have been away.  It has been taken over by what Pippin calls “half-orcs and ruffians”, who owe allegiance to someone they call “Sharkey” and all seem bent on turning the place into a miniature fascist state.  And yet, when Pippin says that they’ll have to be fought, Frodo replies:

“Fight?…Well, I suppose it may come to that.  But remember:  there is to be no slaying of hobbits, not even if they have gone over to the other side.  Really gone over, I mean; not just obeying ruffians’ orders because they are frightened.  No hobbit has ever killed another on purpose in the Shire, and it is not to begin now.  And nobody is to be killed at all, if it can be helped.”  (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)

Frodo persists in this approach to violence even after “Sharkey” turns out to be Saruman, who then attempts to knife Frodo.  Saruman is thrown to the ground and Sam, drawing his sword (perhaps Sting?  it never appears that he returns it to Frodo), seems to be about to stop him from trying again when Frodo says:

“No, Sam!…Do not kill him even now.  For he has not hurt me.  And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood.  He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against.  He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.”

We have seen a progression in the life of Sting, from its initial finding by the timid Bilbo, who then becomes the battler of spiders, even if later, involved in an actual battle, he chooses to be less a participant than an observer.  He passes the sword on to Frodo, who uses it aggressively only once, before it comes into the hands of Sam for the rest of the story.  And we can understand that, even offered it, Frodo will never touch it again.  Instead, he will be as Saruman then says:

“You have grown, Halfling…Yes, you have grown very much.  You are wise—” but Saruman goes on to add “and cruel” and this shows how little Saruman himself has grown.  “You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness in debt to your mercy.  I hate it and you!”

Saruman’s bitterness is not long-lasting, however, as, a moment later, his now-lackey, Grima Wormtongue, uses another blade to cut his throat, dying a moment later himself, pierced by several hobbit arrows.

From what we can tell, at this final stage, unless it’s in Sam’s hands—and even if it is–Sting has completely disappeared from the story.  Considering how Frodo has changed into the wiser, non-violent, person whom Saruman recognizes, we suppose that it’s not surprising that it has.  And, with Sauron—and his Ring– gone and the King reestablishing control over much of western Middle-earth, we expect that there will no longer be any need for such weapons.

Then again, Sauron has been defeated before and returned…

Thanks, as always, for reading and



One World, Two Wars

Welcome, as ever, dear readers.  In this posting, we are taking a break from fictions about wars among the stars to look at wars a little closer to home…

In 1871, there was a new power in western Europe:  the first German Empire.


Until 1871, this had been the Kingdom of Prussia and its allies, a series of small and large German states.  In the late summer and fall of 1870, this coalition had plowed through the armies of Napoleon III’s France, forcing Napoleon to abdicate and capturing Paris.


Such a near-sudden change in the world and especially the rapid defeat of what had been considered one of the major players in western European politics alarmed the rest of Europe:  what would this new German Empire do next?

A fictional answer came almost immediately in a serial first published in the same year in Blackwood’s Magazine.  Written by a British Army Engineer officer, Captain George Tomkyns Chesney (1830-1895)


and entitled “The Battle of Dorking”, it was so popular that it soon appeared in pamphlet form


and then as a novel.


Dorking is a town to the south of London


and, in the story, the site of the climactic battle in which Britain is defeated by those same Germans who had so quickly defeated France.


This never happened, of course, and Britain had suffered invasion jitters before—during the Napoleonic Wars, when the soldiers of Napoleon I sat at Boulogne and the emperor planned an attack


and at the beginning of the 1860s, when there was a fear that Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon I, might be about to try his own version of his uncle’s plan.


Somehow, however, the idea of a German invasion caught on and persisted, spawning a whole generation of such books, such as this, from 1897—


Not everyone believed in this, as this 1910 cartoon suggests—


(Once the Victorian train network was in place, people went crazy for seaside visits in summer, but, for the more modest, that craziness did not extend to exposing themselves to public view while dipping in the sea.  The invention to save people’s modesty was this, a “bathing-machine”, as they were called.


You climbed into this fully clothed at one end, changed into bathing attire (still ridiculously overmodest by modern standards), then, when attendants had rolled the device into the water, you stepped out into the water (presumably up to your neck, to continue to preserve your modesty), splashed about, then climbed back in, were rolled back onto the beach while drying off and redressing, then stepped out again with, at most, damp hair to show that you’d been in the sea at all.  The obvious joke here is that the German invaders would be landed somehow in the ocean already in bathing dress, then climb into bathing machines to disguise the attack they would then launch on the beach.  This cartoon is by W. Heath Robinson (1872-1944), who was popular then and beyond for the wackily improbable inventions he regularly contributed to the press.)


In that same year of 1897, however, one author took the idea of invasion in a somewhat different direction.  First appearing that year in serial form in Pearson’s Magazine,


this is the first book printing (1898) of HG Wells’ (1866-1946)


The War of the Worlds.

The idea that Mars might be able to support life—or had supported life—was popularized with advances in the development of telescopes, brought about in part by a mistranslation.  In 1877, the Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910),


had observed on Mars what he believed to be canali.  What he meant by this was “channels”, but, when the word appeared in English, it was soon (mistakenly) understood to be “canals” and, once one has canals, the next step is canal builders,


which quickly leads to the idea of civilizations and soon there were all sorts of speculation—including detailed maps—of who—or what—might inhabit the Red Planet.


In his novel, Wells took this one step farther:  suppose those canals were drying up—what would a sophisticated civilization do?  One answer—and we can suppose that the rapid expansion of the still-new German empire, now attempting to become an international power,


along with what was now a quarter-century of invasion fiction (this is Louis Tracy’s 1896 novel on the subject—you can get your own copy at:  https://archive.org/details/finalwar00tracgoog/page/n13/mode/2up)


might have supplied some of his inspiration—was the invasion and conquest of a nearby planet, in this case, Earth.

Although Britain in 1897 was at its peak as a world manufacturing power, when confronted with the Martians and their array of machines,


heat rays,


and “black smoke” (clearly a forerunner of the Great War’s poison gases),


it appears that the Martians will be victorious—until they are suddenly defeated, not by armies and their weapons, but by our diseases, of which they have no knowledge and to which they have no immunity.


(This is an illustration by Henrique Correa from a 1906 French translation of the novel.)

This is hardly the end of invasion fiction, which will continue to be published and popular up to the Great War, one of the most popular works being William Le Queux’s (1864-1927) The Invasion of 1910 (1906).  (And here’s the LINK for your copy:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/51905/51905-h/51905-h.htm)


If we consider that all of this may have started at least in part because of the success of the Prussians and their allies in 1870, it doesn’t surprise us that Wells’ story should gain a new level of, if not popularity, then at least notoriety, in 1938.

Throughout the later 1930s, Hitler’s Germany, brought back from its total defeat in the Great War, was beginning to stir again on the international stage.  On March, 12, 1938, its Eighth Army invaded Austria


and, on March 15, its Third Army invaded Czechoslovakia.


Although some of the Western allies had signed a kind of peace agreement with Hitler at the end of September, 1938, one can only believe that the uneasiness was still strong:  could Hitler be trusted when he seemed determined to acquire more and more of central Europe?

Then, on October 30, 1938, at 8PM (Eastern Standard Time), the CBS broadcast network put on a version of The War of the Worlds dramatized for radio by another Wells, the young actor/director, Orson Wells.


In his dramatization, Wells had updated the story to 1938, setting it around New York City, and turning it into an ordinary radio program interrupted by a series of bulletins about some sort of strange landings and subsequent events in nearby New Jersey.  Anyone who had tuned in at the opening knew, of course, that this was simply fiction.  Anyone who came in later—and seemingly many people did—had no idea and took it for the real thing:  an invasion, of the US, not by a European power, but by those Martians who had nearly conquered Britain in 1897—in fiction.  Needless to say, even in a pre-internet age, this turned into mad rumors and spread through the telephone network, frightening people across the entire country.


Calm returned fairly quickly, but it made us wonder:  with worldwide communication so much faster and easier in 2020, and in a world so prone to violence (alas!), what would happen now, should the fiction of HG Wells return in some new form to disturb us once more?

Thanks, as always, for reading and—barring a Martian invasion—




For your own copy of The Battle of Dorking, go to:  https://archive.org/details/battleofdorking00chesrich/page/n8/mode/2up

For a first-class website on such things as early invasion fiction, there’s:  http://www.theriddleofthesands.com/the-historical-background/